October 20, 2014

THE MCEVOY MINUTE | Money Talks: The Need for Campaign Finance Reform

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By EMILY MCEVOY

With two weeks to go until the midterm elections, campaigns across the country have kicked into high gear – which means that it is the perfect time to discuss campaign finance reform. The debate over the involvement of money in political campaigns, and whether or not there should be a limit to how much candidates can spend has been around for decades, but recently has been frustratingly quiet.

The last true attempt at campaign finance reform occurred in 2007, with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (or the McCein-Feingold law). Since then, several Supreme Court decisions have virtually invalidated the legislation, including the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Committee ruling that allowed for the creation of Super PACs. More recently, the Court voted earlier in 2014 in favor of eliminating any caps on the total amount of money that individuals can donate to federal campaigns or political parties.

Opponents of reform argue that spending and donation limits violate their freedom of speech. On the other hand, proponents believe that money has too much influence on the outcome of elections – both by fostering the potential for corruption, and by limiting who has the financial ability to run for office. This latter point, especially, is increasingly relevant – in 2012, more than $3.6 billion dollars were spent on Congressional campaigns (compared to $1.6 billion in just 1998). More importantly, the figures between what the average winner and loser spent on campaigning illustrates how the amount of money available often determines who is elected – in the House of Representatives, the average winner spent twice as much as the average loser.

It is no surprise, then, that potential candidates with great personal wealth are the ones who decide to run for office – they can dedicate all their time to campaigning without an income; they can kick start their own campaigns financially; they need less financial assistance from the national party (which tends to make them preferred candidates); and they have social networks filled with equally deep pockets. All these reasons explain why at least 268 of the 534 current members of Congress had a net worth of $1 million of more in 2012. Unfortunately, by filling our Congress with millionaires, we ensure that all other social classes are not fairly represented. Opponents of campaign finance reform insist that it violates their freedom of speech, but the many income brackets that are not adequately represented have less of a voice in their government, already.

The public, however, seems apathetic to the fact that the average net worth of Congress is significantly more than that of the general population. Nor do they seem concerned over the increasing role that personal wealth is playing in political elections. The driving force for campaign finance reform, however, must come from the people. Members of Congress, after all, understand that in today’s political environment, money wins elections. Both parties know how to secure enormous donations, and neither wants to risk being accused of hypocrisy by advocating for reform while continuing to raise and spend huge amounts of money. This, after all, would end up benefitting the opposing party.

The irony is that Congress’approval rating has been hovering around approximately 15% for several years, at historically low levels. Clearly, the people have no qualms with voicing their unhappiness with our government, but they need to start channeling this dissatisfaction with a constructive purpose. If the public can protest loud enough in favor of campaign finance reform, Congress will have no choice but to act. Most everyone agrees that our government is in desperate need of a tune up – altering the relatively homogenous demographics of Congress might be a good place to start, and campaign finance reform is one way to get there.

Emily McEvoy is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at edm87@cornell.edu. The McEvoy Minute appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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