Jesse Unruh once was quoted as saying that "Money is the mothers' milk of politics." Well we've never seen the like of the flow of "mothers' milk" as in 2008 when over $3.5 billion was spent on campaigning for the Congress, Senate and the Presidency. Over $750 million was spent on the Obama campaign. Congressional races averaged $1.8 million in costs, Senate races average $12 million, this means the typical candidate must start fund raising the minute he or she gets into office and must spend more time raising money than on any other priority. The FEC and Open Secrets.org have detailed and specific numbers per race and also a break down of donors and their organizations. What is clear from both sources is that "Corporate America" donates to both political parties, generously.
Is reform possible, can campaign finance reform actually stop the flow of "mothers' milk" or will it just change the form of delivery? Mc Cain-Feingold the "gold standard" of bipartisan reform barely stemmed the tide of money. Various forms of gradual change have been enacted by Congress without addressing the fundamental issues of funding limits and sources of funding, in a significant way. Individual limits have been overcome by "bundlers" and PACs, sources have never been addressed adequately, as the necessity of equating money with speech under current law has hamstrung all attempts to do so.
Every political "reformer" has his or her own particular "boogie man": corporations, unions, environmentalists, evangelicals; the list of "bad" contributors is endless... Mine, in the interest of full and fair disclosure, is the prospect and effect of unlimited corporate campaign contributions. What is not questioned is the legal basis of the assumption for no "reform": money is speech.
Contributing to a candidate to show support, enable campaigning and gain access is a time-honored part of the American political process. Velocity and amount of contributions are ways of picking winners and losers, if you can't raise enough money in a timely manner your viability as a candidate is suspect. The candidates' message is gauged by its financial appeal. If an opponent can financially crush a candidate, whether by using huge "war chests" to discourage primary challengers or by outspending candidates in a general election, the democratic process is short circuited and the public is ill served. No matter where the money comes from, we are seeing democracy drowned in its own "mothers' milk."
Entrenched interests, incumbents, the major political parties and their supporters, have built a system that generates millions of dollars for campaign operatives, consultants, media buyers, pollsters,all forms of media, lobbyists and other special interest groups. This money machine and its beneficiaries have a vested interest in continuing the status quo, limiting debate, making the hurdles higher for the competition and delaying or defusing any discussion about campaign finance.
Expecting meaningful campaign finance reform from Congress without significant pressure from the people or a "game changing" event is futile. There is no up side for any politician at this time to change the status quo. However, a "game changing" event may be at hand: "Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission," a Supreme Court case that could open the flood gates for corporate and union contributions funded directly from their respective corporate and membership treasuries. Given the disparity of resources between corporations and unions, this case, if decided against the FEC, would significantly change the political landscape in America.
In the event that, as seems likely, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Citizen's United, the effects would be immediate and chilling for Progressives. The unfettered flow of money into politics would inevitably drive politicians to corporatist cash. Progressive policy initiatives would be starved for financial support and backing by incumbents: environmental, work place safety, financial reform, consumer protection, immigration reform, health care, civil rights, poverty mitigation, education and workers rights legislation would be, at the very least shelved or put on the "back burner."
I am sure that some "right wing" initiatives would also be affected, as the corporatists are less concerned with the "culture wars" than their extremist base; however, the corporatist agenda is social control through economic, "national security" and defense policy and they will use whatever they can to protect their interests.
This paragraph from an article published in the Atlantic magazine on July 3, 2007 by Jack Beatty encapsulates within his commentary the trenchant thoughts of Justice Souter on campaign finance reform and its history.
Looking back on the Sisyphean history of campaign reform, Souter observes that neither Congress nor the Court "have understood the corrupting influence of money in politics as being limited to outright bribery or discrete quid pro quo; campaign finance reform has instead consistently focused on the more pervasive distortion of electoral institutions by concentrated wealth, on the special access and guaranteed favor that sap the representative integrity of American government and defy public confidence in institutions." The Court has now given concentrated wealth a clear field in federal elections, and Teddy Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave.
Clearly the history of campaign finance reform demonstrates that neither Congress nor the Supreme Court have dealt with this issue effectively, leaving the American people with only one remedy: a Constitutional Amendment. The "mothers' milk" has to be provided by people, not corporations, institutions or advocacy groups, and personal contributions have to be limited in order to diminish the influence of private wealth on politics. "Bundling" has to be outlawed. The role of "advocacy groups" will be difficult to address, as limiting public debate is not beneficial to the democratic process; however, if these groups are held to the same rules as campaigns, transparency, reporting and contribution limits on sources and amounts, only those groups with significant public support should be viable. The role of political parties, individual campaigns, and "Campaign Committees" have to be subjected to stricter oversight and transfer payments from each to the other closely monitored and regulated. Current campaign law would have to be taken into consideration and the "baby" not thrown out with the "bath water."
The concept and legal doctrine that "speech is money," is a red herring, we already Constitutionally limit speech eg "shouting fire in a crowded theater," when the society benefits from that limit and due process is followed. This theater, American Democracy, is already on fire and the fire is being fueled by billions of dollars of campaign contributions. It is time for action and I call on Progressives to act, set aside personal political advantage and come together to debate and shape a Constitutional amendment that will address this issue and get it passed. Now! Before the democracy we cherish is drowned in special interest, corporatist cash, drowned in its own "mothers' milk."