In response to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, so-called reformers have proposed reactionary legislation to hamper the ability of small businesses, corporations, non-profits, and labor organizations to exercise First Amendment rights. Barbra Streisand, in a column on Huffington Post, spoke up for one in particular—the Fair Elections Now Act. The FENA purports to level the playing field by funding candidates through public financing of campaigns. The act would require candidates to raise at least 1,500 contributions for a total of $50,000 before the candidate would qualify for public funding, and there would be a strict limit of $100 per contributor.
What Ms. Streisand (not surprisingly) does not understand is that such an act would do little more than protect incumbent politicians from challengers. I say “not surprisingly” because Ms. Streisand likely does not spend much time in Youngstown, Wheeling, or any number of other places where raising $50,000 through $100 donations is exceedingly difficult. In congressional districts where unemployment rates are well above the already sky-high 10 percent national average, it is not easy to find 1,500 people to give you $100 each. It is only made more difficult by the fact that the average challenger to an incumbent politician has no name recognition and no preexisting base of support. Ms. Streisand would require challengers to find 1,500 strangers to give them money.
Who has the ability to raise funds from large swaths of the public? Incumbent politicians—they already hold great power and recognition. They have the ability to lean on their established donor bases to collect donations from large groups of people. Upstart candidates often seek large donors to help them launch their campaigns because they lack that ability. Should they wish to be eligible for Fair Elections funding they may never be able to get out of the gate.
The first question is obviously “How is that different from the rules as they stand? Don’t challengers have to raise money from those same strangers?” Yes, they do. But the difference is that instead of finding 1,500 people to give $50 or $100, challengers can collect sums up to $2,400. For every phone call or donor meeting under the current rules, Ms. Streisand would force a candidate to make 24 such calls or schedule 24 such meetings. Allowing larger donations saves money spent on staff, effort spent seeking out all those donors, and most importantly, time that could otherwise be spent out on the campaign trail.
Most importantly, higher donation limits level the playing field between unknown challengers and incumbents. The history of campaign finance regulation bears this out. Since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 limited political contributions by individuals to candidates, incumbents have outspent challengers by 400 percent. Prior to FECA, incumbents outspent challengers by an average of 50 percent.
Of course, this entire discussion is somewhat beside the point. Ms. Streisand argues that the FENA should be passed as a reaction to the Supreme Court’s landmark First Amendment decision in Citizens United v. FEC. But that decision has absolutely nothing to do with how candidates raise campaign funds. Every single limit on political fundraising that stood before the decision still stands today. The same limits that have allowed Ms. Streisand to donate in excess of $600,000 to various candidates and causes over the past 20 years are still in place.
But to briefly address her displeasure with the Supreme Court’s decision, I would observe that for a woman who has made a significant sum of money working under the protective umbrella of the First Amendment, she seems to have little regard for free speech. Citizens United v. FEC allowed those people who can only afford a $20 donation to band together in groups such as the one that I run and speak out in a way that Ms. Streisand’s wealth allows her to speak out. Her apparent desire to limit the ability of my donors to speak out (our average gift is somewhere around $50) is an unconscionable attempt to silence those who do not have her means.
Ms. Streisand’s column called for an end to “special interest politics”—perhaps a noble goal. But how does forcing challenger candidates, who would hold entrenched incumbents’ feet to the fire, to spend exorbitant amounts of time and effort to raise funds a few dollars at a time achieve that end? Ms. Streisand’s neighbors may be able to hand out $100 bills without thinking, but finding 1,500 such people in Mineral County, W.Va., is far more difficult. In Ms. Streisand’s desired scenario, incumbent politicians would only become more entrenched and citizens with only $25 or $50 to give would be silenced. If we truly want competitive political campaigns and an end to the 90 percent-plus incumbent re-election rate in this country, we should take the shackles off of citizens who wish to run for public office or participate in the election process, not restrain them further.