The demise of the Democracy for All Amendment on September 11, three days after the Senate took it up, was entirely predictable. The measure was a noble, if quixotic and imperfect, proposal by Senate Democrats to amend the Constitution to allow Congress and the states greater control of spending on political campaigns. More officially known as Senate Joint Resolution 19, no one expected the amendment to advance far in Congress, but its failure — only the latest in a series of blows to campaign finance reform in recent decades — highlights the fact that real reform is becoming a vanishing dream.
Much of the blame for this stagnation rests with the Supreme Court. Since the Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976, American courts have routinely held that money counts as speech, shielding political spending from regulation or limitation. Over the last ten years, other court decisions, like Citizens United and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, have created a murky system of campaign finance that lacks the checks, balances and transparency necessary for a vibrant democracy. The explosion of independent expenditures by outside groups after 2002 inaugurated an era in which campaign spending breaks records election after election, almost without fail.
In keeping with that costly tradition, candidates for the House and Senate have already raised $1,168,544,077 in anticipation of the November 4 midterm election. If history is any indicator, that value could double in the 50 remaining days until the final ballot on election day. It is painfully clear that election expenses are getting out of control. And, given the immense challenge of reform — which, at this point, would have to come either through a constitutional amendment or another Supreme Court decision — there is little we can do to dam the flood of funding from wealthy and often obscure sources.
The unfortunate and problematic reality is this: every day campaign spending goes unchecked, another tiny thread snaps in the cord between elected officials and their constituents. Increasingly, our representatives — Democrats and Republicans alike — are beholden to the interests of those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars for access and favors.
There are, of course, some compelling and valid arguments against regulation, especially if that regulation is broad enough to allow for the outlawing of legitimate forms of political expression, as S.J. 19’s Republican opponents claimed. But it seems that today’s system of campaign finance has neglected the principles of the First Amendment by creating a “pay to say” setup, in which an amplified and respected voice is available only to those wealthy enough to buy one. The unjust consequence is that affluent Americans have been able to purchase inflated weight for their ideas and opinions, effectively drowning out the voices of the less fortunate during election seasons.
Things have gotten so bad that a recent Northwestern University study led one of its authors Gilens to conclude that “the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has virtually no relationship to policy outcomes.” Unfortunately, the modern American campaign system is a major culprit in creating that disparity, by giving a shot at victory only to those candidates backed by and beholden to moneyed interests. Unfair, obscure, and unacceptably exclusive, massive campaign spending is failing most of America, and there is little hope of stopping it in the near future.
Nicholas O’Farrell, a sophomore studying political science, is the national editor of Stanford Political Journal.