Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Right To Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

In an op-ed in today's Courier-Journal, Edward T. "Ned" Bonnie makes an impassioned plea for adoption of "The Fair Elections Now Act", which is sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). No doubt Bonnie truly believes, as he contends, that public financing of elections "would create a level playing field for all candidates and give ordinary people a stake in the financing of elections." But good intentions do not always make for good public policy and constitutional laws.

One of the central problems with Bonnie's argument is that the Specter and Durbin bill, if enacted, would indeed give us "ordinary people a stake in the financing of elections", but it is a stake we shouldn't want: namely, being coerced by the government to pay with our tax dollars for the campaign speech of candidates with whom we disagree.

Nor should we want the "level playing field for all candidates" that Bonnie apparently envisions: namely, government bureaucrats determining which candidates have too much financial support and redistributing taxpayer money to "worthy" candidates who haven't been able to attract sufficient campaign contributions the old-fashioned way.

Bonnie says he "fundamentally disagree[s], as a lawyer and a citizen, with the notion that how much money one has or can raise determines their political worth." But how is that we, in a capitalist system, usually determine the value of something? By how much we are willing to pay for it, of course. And there is nothing wrong with that. How much voters are willing to contribute to a candidate is a direct reflection of how strongly they support that candidate, just as how much we are willing to pay for an automobile shows how badly we want to drive that automobile.

Indeed, the fact that Senator Barack Obama is raising record amounts of money for his campaign while Senator Hillary Clinton is having to loan $5 million to hers speaks volumes as to where the momentum has swung in the Democratic presidential nomination process. The money count for those respective candidates sends a loud and clear message as to their level of support by the electorate. It tells us the extent to which voters are willing to put their money where their candidate's mouth is. Surely that counts for speech as much as does Bonnie's op-ed piece, for example.

Furthermore, Bonnie's contention that too much is spent on political campaigns simply doesn't square with the facts put in proper perspective. We just witnessed the most-watched Super Bowl in history, during which companies shelled out millions of dollars per advertisement to hawk everything from beer to laundry detergent. The amount of money spent on such commercial speech dwarfs the relatively paltry amounts spent on political speech by candidates running for office. For instance, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's $9 million-plus campaign war chest would buy maybe 3-4 Super Bowl ads.

We all should agree that political campaigns are more important than the Super Bowl -- even darn good games like the one played Sunday night. Shouldn't we pay more attention to who we elect to political office than which beer we buy? So why shouldn't more money, not less, be spent on political speech, given how much is spent by advertisers on commercial speech?

And what's wrong with having political speech financed entirely through private voluntary contributions, so long as there is transparency in the process through full disclosure of donors? It surely beats forcing taxpayers to pay for it. Moreover, the knowledge of who financially supports whom and for how much gives a voter insight as to whether his or her interests are aligned with a particular candidate.

Wealth is scattered so broadly in this country, and held by so many different people of diverse political viewpoints, that there is no danger of one mainstream political ideology unfairly having an upper hand in the raising of funds for political campaigns. And a moneyed candidate devoid of many good ideas cannot "buy" an election: just ask Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, who flopped as a presidential candidate despite having raised tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

In the end, the "ordinary people" whom Bonnie seeks to protect have constitutional rights to contribute to political campaigns and run for political office through funds collected from other "ordinary people". I, for one, don't want to lose those rights through legislation passed by incumbent politicians that would seriously undermine the ability of "ordinary people" to challenge those incumbents in future elections, and force "ordinary people" like me to pay for other people's speech.

1 comment:

Sloane Graff said...

Right on, M. Morris. I had the exact same response to Mr. Bonnie's piece.