The Systems Works – And Donald Trump Proves It

Shaun McCutcheon Plaintiff, McCutcheon v. FEC
Font Size:

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. Just ask those folks who for the last five decades have parroted the chants of campaign finance reform. Right now they’re under the sheets on this issue with Donald Trump. I wonder how much they’re enjoying it.

I’m referring, of course, to Trump’s October 2015 bombshell when, as the only candidate in the race (besides Larry Lessig) who has taken a loudly front-center position on campaign finance reform, he ordered all super PACs supporting him to return donors’ money. Mr. Trump apparently deplores the purported influence-peddling that free access to political coffers affords the free citizens of a free country.

He calls it a “broken system.” And the fix is obvious. Only candidates like him, with “massive wealth,” can mount honest campaigns uninfected by the taint of other people’s money. Ah, so democracy by definition disallows those of moderate means from holding public office. I get it: by definition, democracy is oligarchy.

Meanwhile, Lessig, running on a symbolic single-issue pro-reform platform, was “happy to concede” that Trump is “the most influential person on this issue right now.” I see. Not only are we oligarchs by ideological persuasion, we’re happy oligarchs.

Dear Messrs. Trump and Lessig, the system is not “broken.” In fact, the system has been fixed, or at least strong steps in that direction have been taken. I, for one, am very proud my own lawsuit, which sought to eliminate aggregate limits (not limits on single donations) on contributions by private parties, succeeded in the Supreme Court. It was another salvo in democracy’s battle to wrest itself free from the controlling clutches of the happy few who just don’t need such contributions by private parties.

That battle is all about increasing the tools by which much poorer men than Donald Trump can also get their messages out, thereby maximizing the choices that all citizens have as a Constitutional right. More money means more free speech because it means more door-to-door canvassing, so people can actually talk to each other about issues and candidates. It means, not just more advertising, but better software systems to support vaster communications networks.

It also means significantly enhanced voter recruitment drives. Left-leaning supporters of stringent campaign spending limits, take note – if, for example, you’re concerned about people being disenfranchised in some states on technicalities, freer access to money will better position you to do something about it. You can actually go to those states, provided you have the money – repeat, money – for bus fare.

Not less money; more money in politics benefits those on both sides of the philosophical divide. Politics is always and inevitably about money, and I don’t mean influence-peddling. I mean paying for the software, paying to transport canvassers from Point A to Point B, paying for broadcast access to whole voter populations at a single stroke. You can’t vote for the best candidates if you never see them, hear them, or even know their names.

As we enter into the next phases of the 2016 election year, we must build on the victories we’ve so far achieved. One in particular bears mention.

In February 2015, the Federal Election Commission increased the limits on the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate (for national office) or national political party. These adjustments were important because they apply to national political party accounts created by the omnibus legislation passed in December 2014.

That legislation allows party committees to set up seven additional specialized accounts; individuals and PACs can contribute to those accounts three times the amount now allowed to the main party account (which was also increased). Bottom line: individuals can now give up to $801,600 to a party’s various accounts every year. A couple can give up to $3,206,400.

It’s more money for convention expenses, building infrastructure maintenance, recounts and lawsuits as needed. But we have to go further, much further. If a national party organization merits such relief, why not state party organizations? Imagine the salutary impact of more money at local levels. Imagine exponentially more discussion of everything from zoning laws to sales taxes?

If anything, states and cities are even in greater need of the democratizing balm of money than their national counterparts. After all, where else is the power of an oligarch more keenly felt than on his or her own turf? When Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, he had carte blanch to build or tear down as he chose, simply because no one else had access to the kind of money that he (or, today, Donald Trump) could spread thick or thin.

Today, Mr. Trump quite unintentionally proves my point by virtue of his bald-faced asseveration that only candidates like he and Rockefeller have the right to rule. Which brings me to something else I’d like to see happen during this election cycle.

Is there a candidate anywhere, even among the conservative Republicans running, who is willing to really step forward; who can underscore, not just the flaws in Trump’s position on this issue, but the tangible and necessary free speech guarantees that only money can buy? Ted Cruz, where are you on this – you who have championed First Amendment rights in the past? And Rand Paul, speak up on behalf of the Constitution that’s always been the treasured focus of your political life!

If anyone is willing to speak, let him or her be heard. If not, it’s only one more example of how politicians often follow change instead of leading it. Fortunately in this case, the change will continue to happen, in Congress and in the courts, no matter what the candidates say or don’t say in their next debate.

Shaun McCutcheon, an electrical engineer in Alabama is the successful plaintiff in McCutcheon vs FEC and author of Outsider Inside the Supreme Court