Wednesday, December 10, 2003
This morning the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited ruling on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that Congress passed in 2002. You can read the whole ruling here at the Court's website.
I was part of a legal challenge to portions of the McCain-Feingold law that doubled the so called hard money limits on what candidates could raise directly from large donors. This increase was part of the wheeling and dealing that went on in smoke-filled rooms in order to get the U.S. Senate to pass a bill, any bill, that its propoents could call victory. You can read the brief submitted by the non-profit lawyers who represented me and other public interest groups and grassroots candidates here.
The Court wasn't interested in the plight of ordinary citizens and the fact that candidates backed by regular folks don't have a chance against the candidates backed by the fat cats. The Court said that "we have noted that 'political free trade' does not necessarily require that all who participate in the political marketplace do so with exactly equal resource." Now, we weren't asking for exactly equal resources, mind you. We were just asking the Court to keep the current contribution limit at $1000, which most of us still can't afford but at least this would keep regular folks from getting completely blown out of the water. I guess the Courts idea of political free trade is a little like NAFTA's version of economic free trade, where the big money guys come out fine and the little guy gets screwed.
To the grassroots candidate who stands up to special interests and therefore doesn't get much money from them, the Court said, "their alleged inability to compete stems not from the operation of [BCRA], but from their own personal 'wish' not to solicit or accept large contributions, i.e. their personal choice." So, in other words, candidates who choose to stand up to big money interests deserve to get beat by those who will do their bidding.
Luckily, not everything the Court said was bad. By a narrow majority, the Court upheld longstanding principles that we can limit contributions to candidates and can keep fat cats from cheating by extending those limits to political parties and groups who conduct electioneering activities. That's a start.
The Court also reaffirmed that we can ban corporate and labor contributions to parties and to electioneering groups. That too is a good thing, especially since Chief Justice Rehnquist announced during the oral arguments last fall that he has reversed his position on this. However, Sandra Day O'Conner, who previously opposed banning corporate and labor contributions, also switched her position, so for now reformers can continue to push for this reform.
So, ignore those who claim this is a monumental victory as well as those who say that money is speech and somehow the First Amendment just went out the window. The reality is that campaigns are going to look pretty much the same tomorrow after this Supreme Court ruling takes hold, as they did yesterday before the Supremes ruled.