A Case for Reform
Conservatives should take a principled stand against Citizens United.
What would the founders think?
Conservatives can take a principled stand against the undue influence of money in elections. In the late 1990s, the Stuart Family Foundation, where I serve as executive director, took such a stand. At that time the soft-money loophole was corrupting Congress and undermining public faith in the integrity of elections. The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 (otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act), which passed with considerable Republican support, helped to restore this faith. But five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which permitted corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited sums in elections, another package of reforms is urgently needed.
Currently, few conservative thinkers support reform, yet without conservative support nothing further can be achieved. What might be done to shape a new consensus?
Contemporary American conservatism exhibits a welcome re-engagement with the political philosophy of the American founding. Conservatives are rightly convinced that neglect of founding principles accounts for many of the country’s present difficulties. This has a direct bearing upon conservatives' attitudes towards federal regulation of political spending. They will reject any law that does not seem consonant with our original constitutional thought or which seems motivated merely by the passions of the day.
Accordingly, if they are to consider the merits of reform, conservatives must be encouraged to reassess their position in light of those same founding principles. There are at least three ways this might be done.
The first is an appeal to conservative suspicion of concentrated power. As James Madison noted in the Federalist No. 10, "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people." Conservatives are prone to emphasize Madison’s concern with majority abuse of private rights. Madison, however, saw in republican government a threat both to private right and to the public good. Without contending factions, he maintained, both are likely to be abused. In the logic of Madison’s Federalist No. 10, Citizens United has arguably given one particular type of faction disproportionate power over the outcome of federal elections.
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Unfettered and undisclosed corporate spending also threatens limited government by opening the door to rent-seeking and cronyism. Politically connected companies create business for themselves with taxpayer money and tilt the markets in their favor. This in turn enables the problem-solving, expansionist vision of government that Republicans are so determined to roll back.
Second, conservatives must be confronted with the reality of corruption. No system of campaign finance precludes corruption. But some systems are better than others, and the evidence will soon mount that runaway spending from individuals and corporations will increase quid pro quo corruption in Congress, just as the soft-money loophole demonstrably did. We send our lawmakers to Washington to represent their constituencies in deliberation, not to execute the pre-scripted errands of a few wealthy contributors.
Third, conservatives must be reminded of their past support for disclosure of the sources of political contributions – a principle upheld by the Roberts court and widely affirmed, until quite recently, by most Republicans, even by many who opposed the McCain-Feingold Act. Without disclosure, it is not possible for voters to decide for themselves whether a given candidate has merely done the bidding of the particular interests that filled the campaign war chest. Moreover, conservative commentators claim that corporate spending in campaigns after Citizens United will be checked by fear of alienating customers. That restraint can only operate if corporate contributions are disclosed.
In short, the task is to remind conservatives that their own political convictions – including their reverence for the philosophy of the founding – commend reform.
If conservatives continue to insist that unlimited, undisclosed contributions from corporations and individuals pose no threat to the integrity of government, sooner or later they will be embarrassed by the reality of corruption. Rather than seeming principled, they will appear hidebound at best, or at worst complicit. This would be a great loss because renewed interest in our founding political philosophy is one of the best hopes we have of restoring public trust in government.