Another Perpetually False Promise

In response to the Citizens United ruling a year or two ago, a group of Democrat legislators have proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving the government the power to regulate donations and financial support to political campaigns:

SECTION 1. Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in kind equivalents with respect to Federal elections, including through setting limits on—

  1. the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal office; and 
  2. the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates. 

SECTION 2. A State shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in kind equivalents with respect to State elections, including through setting limits on—

  1. the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, State office; and 
  2. the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.

SECTION 3. Congress shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

A short report on the filing — the amendment will not pass in this or any other form — quotes Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin:

“By limiting the influence of big money in politics, elections can be more about the voters and their voices, not big money donors and their deep pockets,” said Harkin of the amendment. “We need to have a campaign finance structure that limits the influence of the special interests and restores confidence in our democracy. This amendment goes to the heart of that effort.”

I appreciate that so many people believe money is the problem in politics. And they believe the promise echoed by Harkin here that if you regulate money with the aim of reducing it, you will reduce its prominence in electoral politics. (And I think the Citizens United opinion is intellectually defensible on First Amendment grounds. Not that corporations are “individuals” with “rights,” or that money is speech, but that corporations are peaceable assemblies in which individuals with rights can petition the government for a redress of grievances.)

But a couple of things about campaign finance “reform.” First, I don’t believe it’s about fairness. It’s about hobbling opponents by preventing them from acting. This has been one of the aims of campaign finance regulation since the Federal government started doing it about 100 years ago (it was a stated aim a century ago). Most people I know who support regulations on the financing of political campaigns are progressives in one form or another, and they are angry that their progressive agenda is not or cannot be enacted. And many tend to blame an “unfair process” on this. Because people would vote for progressive policies if they just knew about them or understood them, and they would if candidates for political office could run without being beholden to moneyed interests. So, they seek the rejigging of the process in their favor. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this in democratic system in which the rules are constantly up for grab. But I’d like a little honesty. It’s not about fairness, it’s about creating advantage in hopes that advantage will produce the desired political outcomes.

Second, this promise that someone limiting the role of money and “special interests” (a loaded phrase I do not like, because it assumes that there is a “general interest” and that only that “general interest” is good or morally legitimate) will change politics for the better. And that there is even a way to limit the influence of money. Congress and the states have been at this for 100 years, and doing it in earnest since the 1970s, and yet money has not gotten less important with every new bit of legislation, it has gotten more important. It’s as if attempting to create a dam to prevent the flood has only made the flooding worse. There are numerous theories as to why this is, and I cannot settle on one. I take it as a truism.

But I am convinced there is no magic democratic world in which self-interested money does not play even only a small or minor vole in politics. (And what money is not self-interested?) Harkin’s promise is a false promise, beguiling yet utterly untrue. And yet, like so many promises made by democratic governance (and modernity itself), it is so beguiling it blinds believers to the reality, thinking that just one or two more sets of laws will make the promise come true. It is unfazed by the evidence of the senses, which merely convince the believers to double down and do more to make the promise come true.

It is a good thing the amendment won’t pass. (Though this is the appropriate way to deal with the problem in our system of government.) Were it to pass, it will both fail at what it seeks to accomplish and at the same time give Congress (and the states that follow) far too much power to determine what is legitimate political speech and who can speak (because while money may not be speech, the ability to organize and raise money is). Because in our society, money will always find a way. Always.