Campaign finance: Obvious problems, no easy answers

Guest post courtesy of IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

An IU Bloomington panel of liberal, moderate and conservative political figures agreed that the money does matter when it comes to election campaigns. They pointed to the $7 billion spent on campaigns in 2012, a number that is not only an indication of a large increase in spending in recent year but also highlights the increase in corporate funding for campaigns.

“Money has become a threat to our representative democracy,” said Lee Hamilton, former U.S. representative from Indiana and director of IU’s Center on Congress.

Panelists discussing campaign finance were, from left, Paul Helmke, Greg Knott, Matt Pierce and Lee Hamilton.

Panelists discussing campaign finance were, from left, Paul Helmke, Greg Knott, Matt Pierce and Lee Hamilton.

The panelists — Greg Knott, a 2014 nominee for Monroe County Council and local precinct official; Paul Helmke, former mayor of Fort Wayne and director of IU’s Civic Leaders Center; Matt Pierce, Indiana state representative for House District 61; and Hamilton — all advocated for substantial changes to the current campaign finance structure. The panel, in a session titled “One Dollar, One Vote,” discussed the current structure with a special focus on the Move to Amend effort and asked if democracy will survive the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. However, their remarks posed more questions than solutions.

The difficulty with enacting campaign finance reform, panelists suggested, is that to propose changes to the McCain-Feingold Act or the Citizens United Supreme Court case, you first have to define difficult concepts like free speech; explore the relationship between election spending and democracy; and also ask why we have the First Amendment and how it should be enforced.

“Our current system of campaign finance is not inevitable,” said panel moderator Marjorie Hershey, an IU professor of political science.

But the panelists identified multiple obstacles to enacting substantive campaign finance reform in the near future. Although an advocate for reform, Knott advised that unintended consequences of efforts like Move to Amend would remove the ability to raise large chunks of money quickly. “Only the independently wealthy people would be able to compete, making the playing field less level,” he said.

Pierce pointed to the fact that no Supreme Court justice since Sandra Day O’Connor has a background in politics, making it difficult for the court to understand the political atmosphere that turns campaign fundraising into a slimy business.

Hamilton blamed the perception gap between politicians and ordinary citizens. The perception gap is a concept that evolved from polling data showing that voters believe money plays a huge role in election results but that politicians do not believe they are influenced or corrupted by donations. “I’ve never met a politician that believed they could be bought,” Hamilton said.

Those who advocate for legal unlimited spending by corporations often point to the other ways that Americans spend money. They point to the multi-billion dollar porn and junk food industries, arguing that if Americans and corporations can support these massive sectors, corporations should similarly be allowed in the political process. Advocates also point to the decades before limits to campaign spending began in the 1970s, arguing that the unlimited expenditures then still led the country to elect overwhelmingly qualified members of Congress and presidents.

Panelists and the moderator joked sardonically that the current system allows both the rich and poor to spend millions on campaigns and that we have the best Congress money can buy.

Without any changes, they warned, citizens are becoming increasing discouraged by the political process. “This is such a mess,” said Helmke. “And it discourages people from running. And we need more people, not less people, running for office.”

Until reforms are adopted, Hamilton said, citizens are losing the power that a representative democracy should afford them. “Money diminishes the power of the ordinary voter,” he said. “The influence of money from big donors now outweighs the voters. Majorities now have only a very little impact on actual policy.”

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