Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Roberts Court Takes Aim at Campaign Finance Reform

by Alec Baldwin for HuffPost

It was the late actor Ron Silver who had introduced me to the Buckley v. Valeo decision, back in 1988, shortly after Silver, Susan Sarandon, Chris Reeve and HBO head Michael Fuchs had formed the advocacy group The Creative Coalition (TCC). The issue of campaign finance reform had begun to emerge as one of the organization's primary interests, along with government funding for the arts, abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection. I had studied political science at George Washington University from 1976 to 1979, but the Buckley v. Valeo case, hastily put into place for the 1976 Carter-Ford race, did not seem to loom in the political mainstream as it did in later years, oddly enough. And certainly not in the way it does right now.

Buckley v. Valeo was, ostensibly, a response to Nixon's 1972 campaign machine. Nixon, you will recall, never did much that his predecessors had not done. He just did more of it. An almost obscene amount of it. And he seemed to have little or no conscience about it. The Congress amended federal campaign law in 1974 over Gerald Ford's veto. The case was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C. on January of 1975 against officials of the Federal Election Commission. The plaintiffs included former Senator and 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. It made its way to the Supreme Court, who issued their decision in January of 1976. Some argued that the timing of the overall litigation was orchestrated to allow for any challenges and to insure the law would be in place for the Carter-Ford race. Some say the process was rushed.

Buckley v. Valeo is flawed. It basically states that the government can limit individual contributions to campaigns to address the appearance of a quid pro quo in the elective process. But it puts no limits on what candidates can spend, opening the door for the Michael Huffingtons, Jon Corzines and Michael Bloombergs of the landscape, wealthy men who manufacture absurd populist images by spending tens of millions of their own personal fortunes on their campaigns. The notion that "cash is speech" and that limitations on candidates' spending is an abridgment of their rights has been attacked vociferously by reform advocates. If cash is speech, reformers argue, then those with the most cash speak loudest, and progressives find this to be the fulcrum of the entire problem.

Public financing of certain races, which exists today, has been widely viewed as a possible answer. However, the intended benefits of such regulation are obviated unless all parties are functioning with essentially the same or nearly the same amounts of money. Candidates for public office may not need "ceilings" imposed on them for campaign spending, but they do need "floors," a publicly funded source of money that will insure that qualifying candidates receive enough cash to achieve "media saturation" in the region in which they are running. Additionally, the very issue of paid ads was analyzed by Marvin Kalb, the veteran broadcast journalist. Kalb was the frontman for the "Nine Sundays" proposal that came out of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. "Nine Sundays" proposed that the major networks broadcast the presidential debates, free of charge, with the major candidates during the weeks just prior to the actual vote. Sunday was viewed as the night of highest television viewership. This proposal not only addressed the issue of parity between candidates but also public access to the airwaves, which networks were increasingly sneering at, operating as if the broadcast bands were their own assets. The proposal did not get off the ground.

In the years I worked with TCC, perhaps the most satisfying experience I had was getting on a bus early one morning and heading to western Massachusetts to gather petition signatures to get a clean campaign law on the ballot there. We succeeded. We went to Maine, as the guests of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund and my friend George Christie, where we raised money for the legal defense of their clean election law. Eventually, when a Republican of John McCain's stripe sponsored his historic bill with Russ Feingold, my colleagues and I had real hope on the national level.

Now, the issue of campaign finance reform, which I believe is the lynchpin of most political problems in this country (just as I believe energy is at the center of our economic troubles) has suffered a tremendous blow with the current court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Do you really want the sociopaths from AIG, Wall Street trading firms and bailed out banks, who have driven the US economy off of a cliff in pursuit of their own enrichment, to have an unfettered and insurmountable war chest with which to campaign for candidates of their choice? Campaign finance reform insures that more people have a chance to participate in the process beyond voting. They have a chance to run, even win, if the playing field is somewhat leveled. If I wish to run for office, if you wish to run for office, that can only be a good thing. The country has been run by men with Ivy League credentials, and the attendant access to vast campaign resources, since 1988. You think things have been going well? Now issue ads and soft money will suffocate real debate and rapacious bankers will push the US economy further to a brink we may never return from.

Once again, the Supreme Court of John Roberts proves it is the escort service of choice for corporate polluters, financial swindlers and and rich, white men who think they own this country, with everyone else as either their guest, or "the help."


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