Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a bipartisan bloc of other senators have proposed a constitutional amendment that would overturn Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court decision that is the superstructure of our current election law. Specifically, the court ruled that giving and spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. I find it interesting that Schumer and company would go down this route since the likelihood for success is very small. In order to become law, the measure would have to go through a gauntlet of debates and votes, including winning two-thirds of the votes of Congress, and winning ratification of three-quarters of the states within seven years. Not very realistic.
Let me be clear. I understand the motivation to overturn Buckley. It’s long been the big maple tree in the middle on the campaign finance ball field. But most reformers have accepted that it’s not going away anytime soon and they’ve learned to play around it. One way of doing that is to create a campaign finance system that offers a voluntary system of full public financing. When the process is nearly impossible to pass a constitutional amendment, why not consider that route, which is appearing more and more achievable.
The Fair Elections Act, which Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced this spring is the current public financing horse to ride. The Act, and a corresponding bill introduced in the House, would create a full voluntary system of public funding for Senate and House candidates. Candidates that can raise $5 contributions from a set number of in-state donors will show a threshold level of public support. And if the candidate swears off further private contributions, they qualify for public funding.
What makes this attractive to candidates is that they would have to spend much less time and energy raising money, and more time dealing with policy and meeting the voters. By using "clean money" to win an election, members of Congress would not be indebted to fat cat donors who financed their election.
And in the interim, transparency — immediate and online — of political contributions is key.