Liberal Democrats, including President Barack Obama and Senators Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer, have long railed against the corruptive influence of money in politics. This is a bit ironic considering what prolific fundraisers they have been. President Obama raised $750 million for his 2008 campaign and is expected to raise $1 billion for his re-election (his wealthy and well connected bundlers have been asked to raise at least $350,000 each). Senator Schumer ended 2010 with over $10 million dollars in his campaign war chest; Senator Durbin only $2.25 million.
Despite benefiting from these exorbitant fundraising sums, liberal politicians continue to insist that money corrupts the political process. In order to prevent this kind of corruption, these politicians have repeatedly introduced legislation to “level the playing field” by allowing the government to determine whose speech should be protected.
Last year’s failed DISCLOSE Act is perhaps the boldest attempt in recent history to restrict our First Amendment rights. This bizarre piece of legislation, cobbled together by Senator Schumer with the aid of special interest lobbyists, thankfully failed to become law, despite the overwhelming support of President Obama and the rest of the liberal establishment.
This year, Senator Durbin seeks to own the campaign finance “reform” mantle. In his effort to address the horrors of “big donor, special interest funded elections” he has re-introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill he has been pushing since 2007. It failed to advance last year despite the support of such campaign finance luminaries as Barbra Streisand.
This year, Senator Durbin has again trotted out his proposal, bearing the same misleading name, but sought to up his Hollywood star power by enlisting the support of Alec Baldwin. Perhaps he hopes for more success with the aid of a better pitchman, or perhaps Mr. Baldwin’s razzle-dazzle was enlisted to divert the public’s attention from the nation’s high unemployment rate to the liberal pet project of campaign finance “reform.”
The 2011 version of the Fair Elections Now Act is billed as a “comprehensive response” to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United restored the First Amendment protection of political speech. The Supreme Court ruled that no matter who the speakers are, whether a group of individuals, a small business, corporation, labor union, or non-profit organization, they may engage in political speech. Much to the chagrin of incumbent politicians, many Americans took advantage of this restored right and joined together to participate in the political process during the 2010 election cycle. Perhaps the zeal with which the American public embraced and exercised their rights is what has prompted the need for a “comprehensive response” from incumbent politicians.
This time around, Senator Durbin’s “comprehensive response” would create a complex formula to determine what threshold amount a Senate candidate must raise to qualify for “Fair Elections” funding. The formula would require a Senate candidate to raise 10% of primary “Fair Elections” funding (40% of $1.25 million plus $250,000 for each congressional district) from a threshold amount of people (2,000 people plus 500 additional people for each congressional district) in increments of less than $100 from state residents. This formula makes a similar bill proposed in the House look simple by comparison – that bill would require a House candidate to raise $50,000 from 1,500 contributors in $100 increments to qualify for government funding.
Once a candidate qualifies, they would receive an initial lump sum. For Senate primary candidates it would amount to 40% of the total qualified figure and the additional 60% would vest once the candidate secures the nomination. Beyond this initial lump sum, candidates will continue to receive a 5-to-1 government match on donations under $100 received in-state. Add in some additional reductions in broadcasting rates, and $100,000 in media vouchers per congressional district, and you’ve got the government tipping the scale in favor of candidates who can navigate this system; namely incumbents.
While it would take fairly little effort for an incumbent politician like Senator Durbin to collect $2,500, $5,000, or even $50,000 in $100 contributions in order to benefit from the financial support of the federal government, it would take considerably more effort for an unknown challenger to do the same. As with the previous incarnations of this bill, the Fair Elections Now Act favors incumbents because they are the ones with better established fundraising bases from which to gather small donations from large groups of individuals. Upstart challengers do not benefit from the same built-in donor constituencies or name identification.
In small towns across the country, it is difficult for House challengers to raise the threshold amount of $50,000 from at least 1,500 state residents in $100 increments. By incentivizing candidates to find these small dollar contributors, the legislation would force challengers to devote their time and energy to raising funds in small amounts, rather than developing their policy messages and actually campaigning against incumbent politicians, in order to enjoy the support of the government that is lavished upon “Fair Elections” candidates.
By creating a system which makes incumbent politicians speech louder, because it will be easier for them to raise campaign funds than their challengers, the political speech of incumbents will be protected. Were the Fair Elections Now Act passed, Hollywood elites like Alec Baldwin and Barbra Streisand could sleep soundly knowing that their liberal incumbent friends are safe.
The “fairest” election would be one in which Americans could choose to support a candidate free from government interference. They could contribute to a candidate, publicly endorse a candidate, or even run ads in support of a candidate. The government would not stack the deck against them by inserting legislative and regulatory roadblocks to their support of candidates. Unfortunately such a free market system offends the incumbent politicians who have the power to create unnecessary rules governing elections. These powerful incumbents believe that it is “unfair” for Americans to use their finances to engage in political speech. Senator Durbin and his Fair Elections Now Act would correct this “unfairness” by elevating the political speech of those who least need protection – actors and incumbent politicians.