June 30, 2008

Guest Column: Supreme Court Unleashes Legal Beast To Trouble Colorado's 2nd District

By Julian Dunraven, J.D., M.P.A.

I have never liked campaign finance reform laws. The notion that one can take the influence of money completely out of politics seems, at best, woefully naive and, at worst, ridiculously absurd. Nonetheless, in so many ways our lawmakers and activists continue to try. After they finish attempting to put all sorts of fetters on the evil beast of our political system, the Supreme Court inevitably comes by and proceeds to cut about half the restraints. Of course, this simply creates a very angry beast that has to lurch clumsily about using only one leg and one arm. And people wonder why campaign regulations are always such a disaster. Well, the Supreme Court has, yet again, taken its judicial scissors to the latest Congressional fetter: the Millionaire Amendment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). And yes, the beast is already crashing about angrily.

Let me try to sum up the bizarre laws at issue in very brief terms. Between the meddling of Congress and the stilted reasoning of the Court, the government may impose limits on how much money people may contribute to any given campaign, but not on how much money the campaigns can spend. Also, there is no limit to how much an individual candidate can contribute to his campaign. The reason for this is that money is speech. Contributions may be limited because they still express the message of support for a candidate but, in being limited, also prevent corruption or the appearance thereof. However, the candidate is free to use as much of his own speech/money to promote his cause as he wants. To limit that would be to limit his speech too directly.

Naturally, this creates an advantage for rich candidates. They can spend their own money without limit while a poorer candidate, who may have rich friends, cannot get as much money out of those friends because of the campaign contribution limits. Thus, Congress passed the so called Millionaire Amendment so that if a rich candidate used enough of his own money, the contribution limits for the poorer candidate would be near tripled while the contribution limits for the richer candidate would remain the same. This would continue until the two candidates had eliminated the financial difference between them.

Now, though, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, has declared in Davis v. Federal Election Commission that this balancing scheme is unconstitutional. Apparently, this imbalance does not directly limit speech, but creates a substantial penalty for a rich candidate who chooses to exercise his right to speech robustly (i.e. spend a lot of his own money and trigger the provisions of the amendment). Thus, the Court has declared that the law must go.

Naturally, the government has objected that this means that rich candidates will once again have a huge advantage in elections given the contribution limits. The Court is aware of this. However, Justice Alito reminds us all that it was Congress who created this problem in the first place with its bizarre attempts to regulate campaign contributions. Congress also has the power to fix this situation. He recommends:
If the normally applicable limits on individual contributions and coordi nated party contributions are seriously distorting the electoral process, if they are feeding a “public perception that wealthy people can buy seats in Congress,” Brief for Appellee 34, and if those limits are not needed in order to combat corruption, then the obvious remedy is to raise or eliminate those limits. But the unprecedented step of imposing different contribution and coordinated party expenditure limits on candidates vying for the same seat is antithetical to the First Amendment.
In my own humble opinion, Congress would be well advised to adopt Justice Kennedy’s recommendations from his dissenting opinion in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377 (2000). He pointed out that all of these attempts to limit the flow of money just serve to create problems or push it underground where there is virtually no accountability or transparency (such as 527 groups). Thus, he suggests that, rather than limiting contributions or expenditures, Congress should simply require that all contributions be reported and made public. Certainly, the internet is more than capable of providing instant access to this information for anyone who wants to know. In that way, the public could judge for themselves whether a candidate was too beholden to any particular donor or interest group and vote accordingly. Now there is a novel thought: trusting the voters to make decisions themselves.

For those of you interested in what the dissent had to say, Justice Stevens seems to think there is nothing at all wrong with this imbalanced scheme. Indeed, he goes so far as to contend that Congress should limit both contributions and expenditures. It seems he feels that if the campaigns were forced to spend less, then the quality of their message would be forced to improve and he would not have to ensure watching so many of these annoying and repetitious political advertisements on television any longer. It is rare that a Justice so plainly expresses his personal opinions and tastes as a matter of law. Preventing the Court from being populated by others who feel at liberty to do so may be the single most important reason to elect John McCain as our next president—despite the fact that he is partially responsible for saddling us with these nightmarish campaign laws in the first place.

In the meantime, we shall watch the beast of our current system flail about in the 2nd Congressional district where the millionaire idiot author of Colorado’s ethics debacle, Jared Polis, just triggered the now unconstitutional amendment and his opponents, Joan Fitz-Gerald and Will Shafroth, are left without the benefit of the increased contribution limits it would have provided them.

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