Campaign finance limits third party exposure

Dec. 19, 2004, midnight | By Ravi Umarji | 16 years, 1 month ago

The sad truth about campaign finance reform is that it neither regulates nor monitors campaign finance. President George W. Bush became the first president in history to waive all public funding for his campaign in 2000, and Senator John Kerry followed suit this year, reflecting a growing trend of presidential candidates choosing private, unregulated money to satisfy their own needs. This creates a two-party system that effectively nullifies third parties and reduces a democratic election to meaningless banter.

The problem

Campaign finance laws were established in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 (FECA), which started regulating public funding for presidential elections. FECA did allow for "soft money” donations, money specifically targeted toward issues and policies but not candidates. However, soft money remains unregulated and therefore renders FECA useless: A one-minute commercial that spends 55 seconds endorsing a candidate and five seconds arguing for a policy change can be legally funded using soft money donations.

These commercials, along with everything else funded by soft money, only hurt third parties. Unlike the two major parties, third parties are not backed by the big spenders. In 1996, for example, the Republican Party reeled in $141.2 million in soft money, while the Democrats collected $122.3 million. By contrast, the Green Party received no soft money in that election because Ralph Nader and the rest of the Greens were and still are striving for full public funding of elections. Nader even self-imposed a $5,000 cap on hard money and ended up spending a meager one cent per vote. "We're trying to do it right by not taking corporate cash money, not taking dirty soft money,” Nader said in a Meet the Press debate with Pat Buchanan on Oct. 1, 2000.

While Nader's integrity compromises his ability to actually win an election, he's right"the current system lends itself to corruption and inequity, completely contradicting the ideals of democracy itself. Those with money can advertise, and those who can advertise end up in the Oval Office come January.

The effects

This makes the election a two-party ordeal. And in this ordeal, presidential candidates can drop policy issues because they really don't matter. Wooing the public matters. Disenfranchising the other candidate matters. Take the most recent election"the candidates spent most of the summer debating Vietnam service records. The entire country was obsessed with a war that occurred 30 years ago.

Presidential candidates must resort to personal attacks like these because they're fighting to beat just one person. If they can expose the tiniest, most insignificant flaw, candidates can succeed in diverting public attention away from real issues. While adding third parties to the fray would by no means eliminate such childish criticisms, it would certainly decrease the impact of these statements.

The solution

There is no doubt that soft money is responsible for the spectator-like role third parties play when elections roll around. Between 1992 and 1996, the amount of soft money collected by the Democrats and Republicans almost tripled, while Ross Perot's voting base was halved. Eliminating all private funding of campaigns would transform the presidential election from a mere one-on-one death-match to a process in which many contenders have a chance to succeed.

To accomplish such equity, the government must limit candidates from major parties (those that are on the ballots in 35 of the 50 states) to $100 million, about one-third the resources that Kerry had for his campaign. Campaigns would be audited, and violators would be forced to pay ten times the amount they received illegally.

Special interest groups would be allowed to spend money to support issues, not candidates. All ads would be screened by the Federal Election Commission, and any network running unapproved ads would be fined ten times the amount paid for the ad. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, for example, would have never made it on the air. Such regulation would not violate the First Amendment: A 1996 Supreme Court ruling stipulated that special interest groups spend unregulated money "independently” of candidates. While this law had plenty of loopholes, new legislation would merely strengthen the precedent, not change it.

This issue is literally a matter of changing the course of history. Voters would be exposed to different candidates, and these candidates would hopefully care more about policy than they would about pandering to special interest groups.

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Ravi Umarji. Ravi is finally a senior in the Magnet. All you need to know about Ravi is that he's a huge Redskins fan (which, until last year, wasn't exactly pleasant). Of course, he's predicting a Super Bowl season next year. His favorite athlete is Lance Armstrong, … More »

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