Money corrodes democracy in multiple ways. It influences who gets into politics. It allows the wealthy to speak with a louder voice. It compels candidates to spend inordinate time cultivating donors rather than speaking to voters. The money-and-politics dilemma has a partisan aspect as well as a civic one, because the people with the most money are usually conservatives. So liberals either remain purist and not financially competitive or go for the big money and risk selling their souls (and alienating their voting base).
Since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has defined campaign contributions as tantamount to free speech. Reformers have tried to use public financing to work around that judicial doctrine. But so much private money is available, especially to Republicans, that President Bush decided to forgo public funding for his re-election campaign in favor of unlimited private money. John Kerry, who will raise far less than Bush, felt compelled to follow suit. Nor does Congress have any interest in funding challengers of House and Senate incumbents. At the state level, Maine enacted a public funding law, but business lobbying has defeated similar efforts elsewhere.
The McCain-Feingold Act, long the grail of reformers, was finally enacted in 2002, but in badly watered-down form. Its most important provisions ban soft money (unlimited contributions to parties) and limit ostensibly independent ads supporting or opposing candidates within 60 days of a general election.
Many progressives warned that McCain-Feingold, by failing to limit spending, was worse than nothing. Pure good-government types didn't grasp that in a McCain-Feingold world, the right would have new ways to outspend the left, while unions and progressive soft-money donors would face new constraints.
The worst fears of the critics have been more than vindicated. The latest wrinkle is a proposed ruling by the Federal Elections Commission that would only reinforce the Republican-conservative tilt of the whole system. McCain-Feingold explicitly permits unlimited independent expenditures for voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, as well as for organizing drives on behalf of policies or candidates, as long as those efforts are not organizationally coordinated with a candidate's campaign. To ban such activities, Congress and the courts reasoned, would be to deny citizens free speech.
In this new environment, several progressive organizations were formed to accept liberal donations that, in the old days, would have gone to the Democratic Party. These groups, so-called 527s (after the section of the tax code authorizing them), will organize voters to oppose Bush's re-election, independently of the Democratic Party. Right-wing groups like the NRA will play the same game against the Democrats. The liberal 527s may end up spending tens of millions of dollars, but liberal and Democratic groups as a whole will, if current trends continue, be outspent better than 2 to 1 by Republican and conservative ones.
Now, however, the Republicans on the FEC are trying to make it illegal for 527s -- and even for ordinary nonprofits -- to take positions on public issues that explicitly or implicitly criticize the president. The proposed ruling would prohibit the use of tax-exempt money that "promotes, supports, attacks, or opposes" any candidate for federal office, including comments on a candidate's record or proposed policies [see Harold Meyerson, "Numbers Game" ]. If this is upheld, not only would the new liberal 527s be out of business, but the exemplary work of, say, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been a truth squad on Bush's budget misrepresentations, would be deemed partisan and illegal. Even the Red Cross could be barred from criticizing or supporting legislation on the blood supply if it incidentally supported or criticized a Bush policy. This stance, mind you, comes after the viciously partisan "Arkansas Project," aimed at destroying Bill Clinton at all costs, was financed mainly by tax-exempt foundation money -- without the FEC saying a word.
For the three decades of its existence, the fec has been an utterly toothless watchdog. Now, suddenly, it has come to life in an effort to widen the right's financial advantage and strangle Bush's critics. Last month, I wrote an article headlined "America as a One-Party State" on all the ways the right is seeking to make the Republican regime permanent. Here's yet another one. The hits keep on coming.