Money Changes Everything

I have the most reliable friend you can have in American politics, and that is ready money.--Phil Gramm

Campaign finance is legal bribery, defeating democracy, ensuring that politicians will put on a mask to impress or soothe the voters while serving the interests of the people who bribe them. We are trapped in this system like a lizard which has grown fat inside a bottle, and can no longer pass out through the neck.

It is human nature to seek out and exploit the loopholes in any system; capitalism has co-opted democracy, and campaign finance is the tool it has used to do so.

In 1972, Richard Nixon, the gangster president, resigned, and Congress, ashamed by the disclosure of paper bags of cash contributed to CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which put limits on most types of campaign contributions, including:

FECA was challenged by New York Senator James Buckley, millionaire brother of William Buckley of Firing Line and National Review, in a case called Buckley v. Valeo. In 1976, the Supreme Court upheld FECA's limits on individual, PAC and party contributions but threw out restrictions on spending one's own money and on independent expenditures. The grounds: these limits infringed First Amendment rights of free speech.

Buckley v. Valeo did not consider the problem of soft money--contributions made to national and state parties which are supposed to be spent on general purposes but which have a way of being spent on behalf of the candidates. In 1976, soft money was not a major loophole; today, it has become the major tool used by the parties to avoid the FECA's restrictions.

"Money in politics," Senator Bill Bradley said, "is like ants in the kitchen--if you don't close every hole, they'll keep coming back." Buckley v. Valeo's holding that money is speech actually kills speech. The free speech rulebook, brilliantly summarized by John Milton, mandates that we must "prove all things; hold fast that which is good." The American version of the rulebook, ably described by Justice Holmes, was "the marketplace of ideas", in which the best idea triumphed, no matter what its nature. Buckley v. Valeo, though ostensibly based on free speech grounds, ignores the rulebook, because it allows the holders of financial power to dominate the marketplace of ideas, in fact to dictate that every election will be a contest not of ideas, but of interests.

A powerful illustration of the way that campaign contributions can act quite directly to destroy speech is the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1995. President Clinton and Vice President Gore strenuously sought the financial support of the telcom companies, and got it. Ninety-two thousand dollars came in on the day of a major speech by Gore, rescinding his earlier promise that the government would fund the infobahn and calling for it to be built by the private sector instead. Major financial supporters of the President with an interest in telcom include MCI, Sprint, Nynex, Bell Atlantic and U.S. West. The resulting legislation, which will throw things wide open to allow everyone to compete for Internet access business, will be a disaster for freedom of speech, allowing domination of the ISP business by a few large companies who also provide their own content. It would be history repeating itself: a broadcast model imposed on the Net, dominated by a few companies in exactly the way the networks dominate broadcasting. It would be history repeating itself; witness the bloodbath which occurred after Congress first regulated radio in 1927--a legislative decision doubtless also spurred by campaign contributions.

As long as our system countenances legalized bribery, politicians will represent their large contributors, and not the voters. Most proposals to fix the problem are incredibly timid and would only mildly ameliorate the problem; until the Supreme Court chooses to overrule Buckley v. Valeo, little can be done anyway. The case has been described as a huge tree planted in the midst of a football field; the game--democracy--can still be played, but only around the tree.

The only solution is radical surgery: eliminate money entirely from the political process. That's right; get rid of it.