On Wednesday, I attended the first of a set of "public forums" on campaign finance reform that the Senate committee on elections is hosting around the state.
"Public forums" is in quotes, because although the public is invited to attend, they're not invited to speak. Instead, the committee is bringing in expert speakers to discuss on various issues about campaign finance reform.
The one on Wednesday was about campaign finance reform and the First Amendment. Senator Joe Bruno keeps repeating the mantra that campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment. It was no surprise, then, that two of the three panelists held Senator Bruno's view.
John Staple of the CATO Institute and James Bopp, Jr. of the James Madison center for free speech (or something like that) both argued that campaign finance laws violate the first amendment. Staple argued that the First Amendment is violated because it forces candidates with less money to have to work harder to raise money in order to buy air time and campaign. Candidates with more money (either their own or those with wealthy networks) do not have to work so hard and can get their message out easier.
The one voice in support of campaign finance reform was the League of Women Voter's of New York State's Barbara Bartoletti, who argued that the reform legislation being proposed in New York state does not raise any questions or concerns about violating the First Amendment, since much of the legislation is about closing loopholes, requiring more transparency and reporting of donations, and limiting hard money amounts, but not to the strict levels established at the federal level.
I agree with Bartoletti that the legislation being proposed for New York state does not raise First Amendment concerns for the reasons she stated. In addition, it's worth noting that in Buckley V. Valeo, the Supreme Court clearly ruled that limits on amount of money an individual gives to a candidate *can* be restricted. What cannot be restricted is how much money a candidate can spend (unless they take public money to finance their campaign).
Stamp and Bopp both also argued that the Wisconsin Right to Life decision that was decided just last week by the Supreme Court indicates that campaign finance violates the First Amendment. The Court ruled that issue ads cannot be restricted from airing unless they clearly are involved in electioneering. The ruling likely will end the element of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance law that restricts issue ads from airing the last 60 days of an election if they urge viewers to contact the candidate running for re-election.
I agree with Stamp and Bopp that the Supreme Court ruled on First Amendment grounds in the Wisconsin case, but again, there is nothing being proposed for New York that bans issue ads or issue advocacy in the days leading up to an election. So, as Bartoletti said, First Amendment concerns are irrelevant.
The one part of the discussion that I found incredibly aggravating were claims made by Stamp and Bopp that public opinion basically is neutral on campaign finance reform. This echos Bruno's claim that no one gives a flying f*** about campaign finance reform in New York state. I don't disagree that if you ask New Yorkers what the most important issues facing the state are, campaign finance is not likely to make the top 10 (although I'd bet that issue of "reform in Albany" would rank somewhere). But, I don't think that matters.
I care a great deal about public opinion, and I think that public opinion can and should matter at times. But, some issues are complex, arcane, and do not directly affect voters. As a result, they don't rate highly on voters' lists of problems -- but that doesn't mean they aren't problems that need solutions.
To my mind, New York state has one of the most back-assward's processes for governance in the country. And without question the obscene amounts of money that candidates can raise with little oversight or reporting is one of many elements of governance that need reform.