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Weeks: Time for a New Approach to Campaign Finance Reform

Last week’s unsavory compromise between Democratic leaders in Congress and the National Rifle Association over the extent of donor disclosure in the so-called DISCLOSE Act contained a sobering lesson about the way that Washington works: Even legislation expressly designed to rein in special interest influence in campaigns is subject to constant compromise at the hands of special interests.

[IMGCAP(1)]Notwithstanding the NRA’s defection to the campaign reformer’s camp, the DISCLOSE Act has reignited a familiar tug-of-war in our nation’s campaign finance debate. On the one side are reformers who favor basic regulation of private campaign money, including limits on corporate electioneering to influence campaigns. On the other are conservatives, backed by a five-vote majority on the Supreme Court, who argue that campaign limits — on individuals and corporations alike — run afoul of the First Amendment.

But there is a third way forward for campaign finance reform — one that even the conservative NRA, as the nation’s self-styled “premier grass-roots organization,” should logically support. Participation-centered “Fair Elections” reform acknowledges both the reformer’s legitimate concern with the power of big money to corrupt, and the conservative’s fair defense of no-holds-barred political speech. Call it the “more speech” solution to the free speech problem in campaign finance law.

Enshrined in the Fair Elections Now Act, this reform uses targeted federal dollars to expand the “purchasing power” of ordinary citizens in campaigns, so they can effectively compete with wealthy special interests. The aim is not to limit or discourage spending by outside groups, but rather to ensure that their voices are not the only ones that can get heard in public debate. The method is a match on small donations made to qualifying candidates by their constituents, paid for by a deficit-neutral fee on major government contractors. Dozens of former Republican and Democratic Members of Congress have endorsed this legislation.

Unlike past reforms, which aimed to limit campaign spending by individuals and groups, Fair Elections “levels up” political speech for participating candidates to a credible threshold of debate, regardless of the amount of private spending with which they are opposed. Such a course steers clear of even the most recent Supreme Court logic for protecting the free speech rights of corporations and unions. Where challenged, it has been upheld in the courts.

To be sure, leaving the wealthiest Americans free to spend their largesse on political speech will seem unsavory to many people: the idea of millionaire candidates “buying” their election through a barrage of fancy ads hardly squares with our vision of a reluctant Gen. George Washington being pressed into service as president for the good of his nation.

But Americans can take comfort in a simple, if counterintuitive, fact: Money cannot buy election to public office. Even as the absence of sufficient funding to make your message known all but dooms a candidate’s prospects of success, spending above a reasonable threshold simply does not correspond with more votes in the vast majority of races. Sometimes, it even produces the opposite effect.

A 2008 survey of all 3,480 races for U.S. House between 1992 and 2006 analyzed the relationship between spending and votes and found that candidates who spent about $1 million (in 2006 dollars) on their campaigns performed no worse than those whose spending far exceeded that mark. Candidates who could not approach the million-dollar threshold stood little chance of success, but rarely did a multimillion-dollar candidate for House do better than his reasonably funded opponent. It is a testimony to the prevailing good sense of the American electorate when given a meaningful choice.

Congressional leaders are right to attempt a quick fix to the anticipated flood of corporate and union money in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. But Congress must do much more than that if it is to take a meaningful stand against special interest influence in our elections. Already, 175 bipartisan Members of the House and Senate have stepped forward to co-sponsor the Fair Elections Now Act; fewer than 100 more are needed to put the legislation into law.

Participation-centered Fair Elections reform would deal a crippling, and constitutional, blow to the power of big money in our democracy — not by limiting the speech of a wealthy few, but by expanding the speech of the many. That is the free speech tradition that George Washington and his cohort envisioned.

Daniel Weeks is president of Americans for Campaign Reform, a bipartisan organization chaired by former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

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