Thursday, February 21, 2013

Campaign finance's shifting burdens


By Bill Kraus

Endorsements have always been a campaign staple. Prominent people, large organizations, anyone or anything with a following who will praise the candidate, are as good as gold in candidates’ campaign literature.

The way it worked was the campaign controlled the publication of the endorsements.

Sometime in the last 20 percent of the last century more of the endorsements became self actuated and published. The control of the endorsement process shifted away from the candidates and the campaigns.

Most of the newly unfettered endorsers were respectable, responsible, and welcome.

They also had money. They could buy TV ads and let the world know how much they liked their endorsees and why.

This would be done in their own words, which was occasionally a mixed blessing.

All in all, though, there was no widespread protest about this turn of events.

Inevitably there were unintended consequences. They came in the form of excessiveness. The campaign managers had, in effect, new uncontrolled and uncontrollable partners. In many cases these new participants had a lot more money than the campaigns did, and the presence of the campaigns themselves was a poor second on TV, the main communication medium for today’s bigtime politics.

The candidates’ advertising became the main event. Viewers who didn’t read the fast moving fine print at the end of the endorsers’ ads could be forgiven for thinking that the ads came from the candidates themselves.

The benefits of this exposure and spending was thought to outweigh the lack of control. There was no legislative push back against third-party spending even to the limited extent it was possible under the rules laid down by the Supreme Court.

There is, however, a kind of unfairness that is part of this reordering of who gets a role in campaign communications, of the message as it were.

The collection and dispersal and reporting of the money going into campaigns became, as the old saying goes, half slave and half free.

Candidates are compelled to report the sources of every dime collected, and what they could collect from whom is also strictly regulated. The big-money endorsers have no such restrictions on what they collect or from whom.

The so-called Citizens United decision, which really opened the floodgates for endorsers' campaigns shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Two centuries worth of Supreme Court rulings have been heading to this inevitability.

But the money-flow rules are clearly unfair. It’s as if candidates in the electoral fight play by the Marquis of Queensberry rules and the endorsers, the third parties, can use hands and feet and there are no mitts on the hands.

Given the history and disposition of the Supreme Court there is really only one way to make this a fair fight, to level this playing field, and it is to deregulate everybody.

This suggestion understandably horrifies the reformers. It clearly makes a bad situation infinitely worse. Or is it the kind of tipping point we need in order to rethink what kind of an election process we want for this country and how we want it to be paid for?

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