Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s campaign finance law was unconstitutional. The vote and the arguments won’t be made public until the court’s next term, but the impact is immediate. Arizona candidates no longer will be given subsidies to allow them a more equal opportunity to reach the voters with their messages.
The assumption is that the court found the law in conflict with the First Amendment; that subsidizing a candidate who agreed to accept a spending limit would be unfair to those who wanted to spend their own money without limitation.
This was the logic the justices followed in killing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act last year.
The court apparently will rule against any law that attempts to level the playing field for all candidates because such laws prevent the rich from using their wealth without limitation to campaign. Any limit on spending will be seen, apparently, as an in-fringement on free speech.
As a consequence, the country may see more Carly Fiorinas and Meg Whitmans in Congress and in governors’ chairs.
On the face of it, that outcome is neither bad nor certain. Whitman and Fiorina are both unusually capable wom-en. They may get elected in November — though both face tough opponents — and, if they are, may turn out to be outstanding as governor and senator.
Americans should ask themselves, however, if it’s really a good idea to allow the very, very rich to spend their money without limit to win political office.
There are two money issues that need resolving. One is the use of personal wealth; the other is whether a limit should be set on the amount a candidate or a political party may spend from donations received.
In the 2008 election, Barack Obama chose not to accept federal financing because his campaign pulled in millions more than the federal law provided. Should the federal subsidy also be limited? Should states such as Arizona be allowed to decide how much a candidate and her or his supporters can spend on a campaign as well as provide a subsidy to a major party candidate to put the credible candidates on equal footing?
History has demonstrated that the wealthy have an enormous ad-vantage in U.S. politics. Roosevelt, Hoover, Will-kie, Kennedy, Bloomberg, Edwards, Perot and now Whitman and Fiorina, are but a few examples who come quickly to mind. Not all were elected to office, but it is safe to say that at least some would never have made a splash in political waters without their personal wealth.
IT CAN BE argued that wealth itself is a qualification for political leadership — but not very convincingly. Some of today’s very rich are also very intelligent and have all of the other attributes sought in a political leader. Some became billionaires through amoral tactics that brought the world to the verge of fiscal collapse three years ago. The very rich are not always very admir-able.
It would be a good idea, therefore, to find a constitutional way to put limits both on the amount of personal wealth a candidate can spend running for office and on the amount his or her campaign organization can spend. The length of political campaigns should also be shortened while we’re at it. If presidential and congressional campaigns were limited to nine months, to snatch a number out of the air, today’s instant and all-pervasive communications media would give every candidate ample opportunity to campaign.
With the Supreme Court again in mind, it probably will be necessary to amend the constitution to give the American people the power to bring the corrupting power of money to heel.
A few more elections such as California’s June 8 primary surely will generate all the support needed to push a well-conceived election fi-nance reform amendment through Congress and assure approval by the states.
— Emerson Lynn, jr.