Congress Needs to Fix Campaign Giving Rules
By Martin Frost
June 6, 2012 —
President Barack Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who used to work for Obama in the WhiteHouse, and it seems like just about everyone else have blamed the Supreme Courtfor the rulings that opened up our political system to unlimited, unreportedcontributions to super PACs by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
That's not the entire story, however.
Ten years ago, when Congress was considering the McCain-Feingold campaignfinance reform legislation, a handful of Congress members - including Rep. TomDavis, a Virginia Republican, and me - tried to warn our colleagues that theywere opening Pandora's box. But they refused to listen.
I was then-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and Davis was chairman of the National RepublicanCongressional Committee. But still, we didn't prevail.
Common Cause was leading the drive for campaign finance reform, with help fromthe editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The reasoning went something like this: There is too much money in ourpolitical system, so we need to change the law to outlaw "soft money"contributions to the two major political parties. Soft money was defined ascorporate funds, union dues money and large contributions from individuals.Both the national Democratic and Republican parties and their respectivecongressional campaign committees could accept soft money - but only forcertain purposes, and all contributions were fully reportable.
The reformers argued that this sea of soft money was corrupting the politicalprocess.
Those of us who questioned their efforts argued that it was better to have thismoney go directly to the two political parties rather than spent by outside groupsthat were not responsible to the parties. We further argued that the partiestend to be centering forces in our political system - and our system workedbecause contributions had to be fully reportable.
But we were essentially shouted down by the "reform" community and by ourcolleagues. They didn't want to be bothered by the details - and didn't want tobe painted as being anti-reform.
I, for one, had specific conversations with members of the reform community. Iraised the prospect that money now being given to political parties would flowto nonregulated outside groups, which would usurp the parties' role anddominate the political dialogue.
The reformers responded that they had taken care of this by banning TV andradio advertising by outside groups within 60 days of a general election and 30days of a primary.
I asked what would happen if the federal courts invalidated these 60-day and30-day bans. They assured me that their lawyers had insisted the provisionswere constitutional. Guess what? Their lawyers were wrong.
This was foreseeable. The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions dating to the1970s, had held that money equals speech and the spending of money on campaignsis protected under the First Amendment.
So, here we are. Under the guise of free speech, we have neutered our twopolitical parties. Instead, we have given free rein to outside groups todominate the dialogue during campaigns.
What is the remedy? There are only two.
One would be to amend the Constitution, giving Congress the power to regulatespending by these outside groups. Amending the Constitution is hard - but wemight see a groundswell of support if things got bad enough.
The other remedy would be for Congress to pass a law again permitting politicalparties to accept these type of contributions - as long as they were fullyreported and used for only certain purposes, like get-out-the-vote drives.
Let's hope sanity eventually prevails. But it does no good just to blame theSupreme Court. Congress shares that blame.
Martin Frost served in the House from Texas, 1979 to 2005, andwas Democratic Caucus chairman and head of the Democratic CongressionalCampaign Committee. He is now an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart.