Recently, the U.S. Senate advanced a constitutional amendment with the goal of keeping “dark money” out of the political process. The amendment only passed the filibuster stage; in order to become part of the U.S. Constitution, two-thirds of the Senate, two-thirds of the U.S. House, and two-thirds of the states would have to support it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid supports the amendment because the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United permits “big spending by special interest groups.” The decision, he said, took the “power away from the American voter and instead [gave] it to a select few of mega billionaires.”
Other Democrats mirror Reid, including Sen. Al Franken (D, Minnesota) (though Franken seems to focus on the dishonesty of political ads, something not even discussed in the actual amendment).
So the solution to the power of “corporate special interests” is to grant the government (both federal and state) more power to regulate political speech. And the amendment isn’t very specific (which is likely intentional). It permits Congress and states to “regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to … elections, including through setting limits on the amount of contributions to candidates … and the amount of funds that may be spent by … such candidates.” Thus, the regulation isn’t only over corporations, but also individuals.
The amount of power the amendment grants to Congress is likely never-ending. Similar to the 14th Amendment, this amendment would grant “Congress and the States [the] power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” “Appropriate” basically means any legislation, though the recent Shelby County v. Holder decision sort of limits this power (but not really, as Shelby was more of a technical ruling).
But why does the government want more power? Why not reflect on how it contributes to the horrible election system — for example, the federal public funding program? This program provides matching payments to presidential primary candidates. While this may sound good, the “candidate must establish eligibility by showing broad-based support. He or she must raise in excess of $5,000 in each of at least 20 states (i.e., over $100,000)” and may personally contribute only a “maximum of $250” per state, according to the Federal Elections Commission’s website. Additionally, the federal program provides general election funding: “The Presidential nominee of each major party may become eligible for a public grant of $20 million (plus a cost-of-living-adjustment) for campaigning in the general election.” A minor party candidate may get this benefit only if he or she is “the nominee of a party whose candidate received between 5 and 25 percent of the total popular vote in the preceding Presidential election.” Finally, the federal public funding program also provides convention funding (though President Obama recently signed legislation ending this type of funding — good job!): “Each major political party is entitled to $4 million (plus cost-of-living adjustments) to finance its national Presidential nominating convention. A qualified minor party may become eligible for partial convention funding based on its Presidential candidate’s share of the popular vote in the preceding Presidential election.”
If you aren’t angry yet, consider this: Since 2000, the federal government has provided the two major parties with more than $454 million to spend in the electoral process, compared to only $22 million for “other parties.” Yet corporations and “mega billionaires” are the problem?
In fact, this amount (and the rules of eligibility for minor parties) perfectly explains the problem of any potential public financing legislation in the future. The big names have easy access to signatures and support. They have the money to give away, as well as the patronage of public benefits. For the Libertarian Party, support is even more difficult because it wants to take these benefits away (who would vote to get rid of their monthly Social Security check?).
The federal public funding program contributes to the failure of the electoral process, as it subsidizes the two major political parties. Like corporate subsidies that act as a welfare program for those with power, thus hurting smaller corporations, the same result occurs for political third parties. It’s depressing, but more so is the fact that the state wants even more power to restrain competition in the government-controlled marketplace of the election system.
But the problem isn’t just with Congress and the federal government. Most states have similar public financing programs. In Florida, for example, only a candidate for governor or a member of the Cabinet (e.g., attorney general) is eligible for public campaign financing. But to be eligible, the candidate must raise $150,000 for gubernatorial races or $100,000 for Cabinet candidates.
In 2014, more than $1.6 million of public funds have been distributed to those running for Florida governor (though this amount hides the benefits Gov. Rick Scott has as the incumbent; all he has to do is call for a press conference and he gets free advertising!). All of these funds have been provided to only two Democrats; Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie, as well as the other seven candidates for governor (yes, there are more than two), have received zero public funds. And the election cycle isn’t even over yet, so Democrat Charlie Crist may end up receiving even more money from Florida taxpayers.
The numbers are just as bad for the Florida attorney general position. Though “only” $500,000 has been provided to candidates, the only third-party candidate — Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer — has received nothing (most likely because he doesn’t meet the hefty $100,000 eligibility requirement).
And then there is the position of commissioner of agriculture, for which incumbent Adam Putnam has received almost $400,000 in public funds; $400,000 for the commissioner of agriculture? What does he even do? Oh, he’s in charge of concealed weapon permits for the state? What does that have to do with farming? Of course, the two challengers (one a Democrat) have received no public funds.
I didn’t learn any of this information about public campaign financing in Florida from any news outlet. Instead, I researched and discovered it on my own. Why is the current public financing scheme — whether federal or state — not up for debate in the Senate or by the TV pundits? Why are the two parties not voting on an amendment either getting rid of public campaign funding or at least decreasing the eligibility requirements? I’m sure you know why. Indeed, why would any major party member want to make it easier for a third-party candidate to actually have a chance in the political process? You’re right — it makes no sense! And who would’ve thought that by putting the two major parties in charge of legislation regarding campaign public financing, they would draft legislation to support themselves?
Yet we continue to vote for candidates of these two major political parties. We choose to vote for the lesser of two evils, again and again. And we also support an amendment granting even more power to Congress so that it can “properly” regulate election spending. After all, they surely won’t pass any legislation just to support the major parties.