Campaign finance reform and term limits
February 5, 2014
With still another money-powered federal election coming up in nine months, it is high time for American citizens to take back control over the federal election process, which has come to be dominated by Big Money — the billions of dollars invested by corporations and the wealthy to obtain financial favors benefiting them over the rest of us.
It has reached the point where those in Congress are spending more time currying the financial favor of wealthy donors to raise money for their re-election campaigns than they devote to their constitutional duties. And it is quite obvious that in the conduct of their jobs they will be loyal to where the money comes from.
What is really disturbing is that this takeover has been aided and abetted by the United States Supreme Court in its infamous 5-4 decision in the 2009 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, in which the Court overturned over a century of precedents to rule that corporations should have the same political rights as people, and that pouring money into the election process is their "free-speech" right. Now another case, McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, which could remove current limits on the amount of money wealthy donors can pour into campaign coffers, is before the Court. It will be interesting to see if the Court again rules in favor of Big Money and against the people.
So how do we the people of this great country take back the election process to serve us instead of the moneyed special interests? The incumbents, who are the beneficiaries of the status quo which allows them to perpetuate their congressional careers and hang onto their lucrative benefits, have no desire to make any meaningful changes. Since they seem unwilling to give up their financial advantage, the only way reform can come about is through a constitutional amendment initiated by the states.
The first strategy that comes to mind is to impose term limits on members of Congress. But term limits would be ineffective; Big Money would simply buy a new stable of congressmen, just the way professional sports teams replace players with new purchases. (More comment about term limits later in this column.)
The real solution to the dominance that Big Money now has over our federal election process is legislation by Congress, or a constitutional amendment (if Congress refuses to act) providing public campaign funding of both federal elections and primaries, and regulating donations from corporations and individuals. It would consist of giving both incumbents and their major challengers the choice of accepting equal amounts of public funding on the condition that they could not receive private donations larger than a set amount (e.g. $2,000) instead of continuing to receive large (and possibly unlimited) donations from corporations and the wealthy. Candidates who take the latter course would be giving their opponents a major political advantage by allowing them to proclaim, "If you elect me, I will serve you the people, whereas my opponent will be subservient to those from whom he has received large contributions."
This approach would make term limits unnecessary, because it would put the challenger on an equal financial footing with the incumbent, letting the candidates win solely on their merits. If an incumbent is doing a creditable job, he should be allowed to continue to serve at the pleasure of the voters, and if not, he could be replaced by the voters. Term limits would also have the defect that, to the detriment of the country, it would force dedicated, highly qualified, and experienced legislators out of office — such as Robert Byrd, Henry Clay, Everett Dirksen, William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Barbara Jordan, Edward Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, Jr., Sam Rayburn, Margaret Chase Smith, and Robert Taft.
Unless the current dominance of Big Money over our Congress is reversed, our government "of the people, by the people, for the people" will be in serious danger of perishing from the Earth. Two nationwide organizations — Public Campaign and Public Citizen — have taken up the cause of campaign finance reform. Several States have enacted legislation establishing public funding of state elections, with outstanding public acceptance.
If we are to save our democratic form of government, it is up to us to take back the election process from Big Money by contacting our senators and representatives, and supporting organizations that are leading the fight on our behalf — Public Campaign, and Public Citizen.
— "As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.