On Native Ground
THE SUPREME COURT STUMBLES ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to strike down Vermont's 1997 campaign finance law reinforces the court's misguided notion that money equals speech in politics.
It does, except that now the race to gather money is more important in campaigns than the race to gather votes and political support.
Money doesn't automatically mean success in the political arena. Here in Vermont, millionaire software developer Richard Tarrant, a Republican, has already spent an unprecedented amount of his personal fortune on his U.S. Senate campaign, yet Congressman Bernard Sanders still holds a 30-40 percent lead on Tarrant in opinion polls.
The spending record for a Vermont political campaign is just under $2 million. Tarrant blew by that milepost in February. Tarrant has plenty of his own money and at the current pace he spending it, he will have gone through more than $10 million for his campaign.
But money usually does make a difference in a campaign. When the Republican National Committee decided a couple of months ago to make former state adjutant general Martha Rainville the party's nominee for the U.S. House and thus get all its financial support, the decision all but killed off the candidacies of state Sen. Mark Shepard and Burlington restauranteur Dennis Morrisseau. There will be a campaign for the three months between now and the GOP primary in September, but for all practical purposes, Rainville has already won her party's nomination before a single vote was cast.
That's why the Supreme Court's decision was a mistake. The influence of special interests and lobbyists on our government is undeniable. And, as we've seen with the various Congressional scandals in recent months, donors aren't giving money out of a deep concern for good government. They are giving money to get favorable treatment from lawmakers.
As Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said on Monday, "It's a dangerous thing for our democracy if you're going to conclude that money equals speech, unless we all have equal access to money."
The Vermont law was reasonable. It called for spending limits on state campaigns which ranged from $3,000 for House seats to $300,000 for governor. Individual contributions were limited to between $200 and $400, depending on the office, and contributions to political parties and political action committees were limited to $2,000. It also called for public financing for campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor, if candidates chose to accept the spending limits.
The Supreme Court thought those limits were too low. It failed to recognize that Vermont campaigns have been traditionally low budget affairs that emphasize old-fashioned face-to-face campaigning over massive media blitzes.
The Vermont law did nothing to infringe upon free speech. What it did infringe upon is the speech of corporations, lobbyists and special interests, something that is not allowed under the current regime in Washington. Less than 2 percent of the population makes contributions of more than $100 to political campaigns. Where do you think the other 98 percent comes from?
Big money in the political process means a government that represents big money at the expense of every one else. It also means that you either have to be a millionaire or totally beholden to big money to run for public office.
If that is freedom of speech, it is a freedom that belongs only to those with money. And that is why the people with money are so vehemently opposed to any changes to the political system.
It was no surprise that the Vermont Republican State Committee was one of the main opponents to the campaign finance law. Of course, the GOP wants things to remain as they are. They raise the most money and have raised the "pay to play" ethos in government to an art form. Why would they want change?
Since its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which set the precedent that money equals free speech, the Supreme Court has been steadfast against putting any limits on campaign spending. As a result, we here in Vermont are starting to see the same scorched earth political tactics that the rest of the nation sees.
Negative advertising, mudslinging, push polling, consultants and political tricksters have been rarities in Vermont politics, until this year. Now, the same Rovian tactics used by the GOP elsewhere are popping up here, and few Vermonters are happy about it.
The only way we can see true political reform in all areas of public life is to get rid of the corrupting influence of money on politics. The Supreme Court may disagree, but the Vermont law was a good start in that direction.
Spending limits and public financing of campaigns are necessary to ensure a clean electoral process, but until the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court changes, we are left with a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.