Philadelphia Inquirer

Average Joes Struggle To Be Heard As Campaign System Favors The Rich

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Thursday, August 7, 2008

By Adam Bonin

People who can afford to spend millions of dollars on their own political candidacies are not exactly a disadvantaged group. Indeed, many fear rich candidates can distort election results by overwhelming other candidates' abilities to get their messages to voters.

For that reason, both Congress and the City of Philadelphia recently passed "Millionaire's Amendment" laws. The goal was to level the playing field by allowing candidates running against wealthy self-funders to exceed contribution limits from donors.

However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the federal law, 5-4, ruling that it discriminated against millionaires. The city's ordinance would likely fall to a similar attack.

The court ruled that this measure impermissibly burdened a millionaire's right to spend his own money when his actions could trigger the financing of speech that counteracted his own.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the law "quiets no speech at all," and that voters' abilities to make an informed choice would be amplified by ensuring that all candidates would be heard.

Fortunately, this may not matter too much. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, of the 53 candidates who spent more than $1 million on their own House and Senate races in 2004 and 2006, only five were elected.

It takes more than a large checkbook to get elected. For every Michael Bloomberg, there are many more like Mitt Romney, Katherine Harris and Tom Knox who spent their own millions and were soundly rejected.

One cannot, however, discount the role of the Millionaire's Amendment in these outcomes. In 2004, options trader Blair Hull spent more than $28 million to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, only to be defeated by then-State Sen. Barack Obama, who was able to raise an extra $1.9 million because of the increased limits. Michael Nutter and others have done the same.

Still, the real problem with the court's decision comes with other reforms that may fall as well.

The majority's rationale rested on the notion that leveling electoral opportunities for less-wealthy candidates was not a legitimate government objective. That's a shame, because the smalldonor revolution that propelled Obama's presidential campaign has not yet reached the state or local levels.

To reform this system, states such as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have implemented innovative methods to allow candidates to receive a public grant that covers campaign costs in exchange for forgoing private fund-raising.

In order to ensure a fair contest, candidates participating in the system can receive additional grants if their non-participating rivals or outside groups supporting them end up spending funds in excess of the public grant.

The result: a legislature that is more economically diverse than one that proceeded it – with diner waitresses and social workers now joining chambers once reserved for the well-connected – and one that is not beholden to special interests or entrenched wealth.

Last May, Michael Nutter, and a majority of those now sitting on City Council, pledged that "if elected, I will support a comprehensive Fair and Clean Elections system for Philadelphia."

Because such reforms call for government spending to boost the speech of some candidates and not others, however, the Supreme Court decision now calls them into constitutional doubt.

There is good reason to be skeptical of any campaign finance-reform measure that must be passed by incumbent legislators to become law, as incumbents have a tendency to use these laws to protect themselves.

But such skepticism should not lead to the overturning of well-thought measures that suppress no voices, but merely boost the volume of all speakers to a fair level.

Millionaires know that their voices will always be heard in the political process, and it's time to ensure that the rest of us are heard as well.

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