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Friday, October 29, 2010

Campaign Money

Nina Easton writes at CNN Money:

Anyone who has been around Washington politics long enough can't avoid this truism: Election-year money is like a rushing river that invariably finds cracks in any dam the reformers erect. In 2002, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law to stop the flow of corrupting special-interest money -- uncapped donations known as "soft money" -- going to political parties.

The result: Special-interest money, from the right and the left, flowed through a widening crack in the dam in the form of tax-exempt 527 and 501(c)4 organizations that took over much of the historical role of the parties, from messaging to getting out the vote. The voices of the national parties, now subjected to the McCain-Feingold limits, and candidates, operating under strict donation caps, are increasingly drowned out. "I approved this message" (a McCain-Feingold requirement) is a joke when it applies only to advertising produced by the candidate, a fraction of what voters actually watch.

Into this imbalance came the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. As constitutional scholar Floyd Abrams recently wrote in the Yale Law Journal, campaign finance reform is considered so sacred that any ruling like this was bound to be unpopular. The Citizens United decision "was treated as a desecration," Abrams notes, even though Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, likened the overturned restrictions to suppression of political speech in newspapers, books, and television.

The Citizens United ruling did not invent special-interest spending; it enables corporations and unions to advocate directly on behalf of a candidate, rather than running more subtle "issue ads." Nor did it produce the phenomenon of undisclosed donors, as White House officials repeatedly assert. "Such expenditures were lawful (and routinely occurred in significant amounts) prior to Citizens United," Abrams notes.