Wednesday found Senator Angus King of Maine attempting just what you might expect of an independent, results-oriented former governor: Looking for some common ground in hyper-partisan Washington.
King’s issue — campaign finance reform — is one where there used to be substantial bipartisan consensus, a consensus that really began in reaction to Watergate.
But the US Supreme Court has changed all that.
Corporations, wealthy individuals, and unions can now spend whatever they want on behalf of a candidate as long as those dollars aren’t a direct contribution and provided that spending is not coordinated with the campaign. Meanwhile, the super PACS that often do that spending can take money from shadowy shell groups that aren’t required to reveal their funding sources. And with the court’s April ruling in McCutcheon, individuals, though still restricted in the amount they can contribute to any one candidate, are no longer limited in the aggregate sum they can contribute to candidates.
Worried about the corrosive effects of unrestricted political spending, King persuaded the Senate leadership to let him chair a Rules Committee hearing on the matter. That hearing was just a few minutes along when it became clear just how differently the two parties have come to see the issue.
Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, the committee’s ranking minority member, promptly displayed a poster of the First Amendment. Money was speech, Roberts declared, and any effort to limit spending was an attempt to limit speech.
To be sure, there were some prominent dissenters to that point of view. Like retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who said that the interest of having a level campaign playing field “justifies regulation of campaign speech that does not apply to speech about general issues . . . ”
Although Stevens was a Republican appointee to the court, his perspective pretty much sums up the Democratic point of view. When it was his turn to speak, New York Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate Democrats’ chief political message-maker, declared that “the First Amendment is sacred, but . . . not absolute.” He offered some ill-considered examples of acceptable restrictions on speech — one can’t cry “fire” in a crowded theater (!) and noise ordinances (!!) — and declared Democrats would push a constitutional amendment to make it clear to the Supreme Court that Congress can regulate political contributions and spending.
Joining Schumer in the dubious logic department, Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz of Texas declared that campaign-finance reform is “perhaps the most misunderstood issue in all of politics” and then revealed that it is really “all about silencing” citizens. (Like, perhaps, Citizens Koch and Soros.)
All of which is to say that though Democrats and Republicans were just a few feet apart on the dais, a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon separates their world views.
And yet, King, ever the optimist, thinks he sees a way forward.
“The court has severely constrained what we can do about campaign limits and sources, but the court has invited us to do disclosure,” he told me afterward. “So that’s where I am going to be focusing.”
His guiding principle is simple: “If you contribute money to try to influence an election, people should know who’s making the contribution.”
It’s hard to argue with that, which is why, despite the political divide on money and speech, disclosure really should be a bipartisan quest. As King pointed out graphically during the hearing, the gap between the money spent by conservative groups and that spent by liberal groups is steadily narrowing.
Here in Massachusetts, we recently witnessed an election where the American Federation of Teachers and Boston Firefighters Local 718 took advantage of lax reporting requirements to pump secret money into the Boston mayoral race — spending whose source wasn’t made public until after the election. (Federal law wouldn’t affect state and municipal elections, but those examples demonstrate the need for effective disclosure laws at all levels of government.)
Even Cruz nodded to the importance of timely disclosure, though in the context of allowing unrestricted campaign contributions.
Still, his comment helps illustrate an important political point. You can be against contribution limits or spending restrictions based on a principled belief that those laws violate the First Amendment. There, the Roberts court is (mostly) on your side.
But there’s simply no good reason for letting campaign spenders hide in the shadows. Not if one puts voters and their interests first, that is. And what politician doesn’t at least pretend to?