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WHAT IS THE CAMPAIGN FINANCE PROBLEM?

This is the most basic question about campaign finance, and it is where differences of opinion begin. The disagreement is between those who think there is a problem that should be solved by passing reform laws, and those who think that the real problem is reformers who want to regulate a system that works well just as it is. Or was, before Congress passed the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

What is the disagreement between supporters and opponents of reform?

The disagreement goes back to Buckley v. Valeo, specifically to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down limits on political expenditures. The 1974 FECA amendments had limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, and it was the battle between supporters and opponents of these limits that were the focus of the case.

The defenders of the FECA argued that the limits strengthened democracy by reducing the undue influence of wealth on elections and public policy. The opponents said the limits weakened democracy by violating First Amendment protections for political speech. The disagreement was between egalitarian and inegalitarian definitions of democracy. The Supreme Court agreed with the inegalitarian definition and struck down the limits as a suppression of speech. The only constitutionally permissible reason to regulate campaign funds, the court said, is to prevent corruption.

The disagreement still is between egalitarian and inegalitarian definitions of democracy; the court's ruling that the egalitarian definition is unconstitutional has not changed that fact. But if supporters of reform hoped to have any success in a courtroom, they had to disguise their argument for equality as an argument against corruption. The only upside to this situation was that preventing corruption is a popular position, at least as long as people do not get too specific as to what they mean by that term. People may not always agree on what constitutes corruption, but everyone is against it. The Supreme Court, though, was specific as to what it meant: quid pro quo corruption, which essentially means bribery.

 
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