I owe my life to the remarkable generosity of America's political system, which under legislation from Franklin D. Roosevelt, welcomed thousands of children from England during World War II. It is out of this respect, and out of a fear for how money is corroding America's political system, that I call for a rethink of how we approach campaign finance.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..."
Perhaps no other words have played as important of a role in shaping the freedom and prosperity of the United States as have the ones found in the First Amendment. And perhaps no other amendment in the constitution has led to more unintended consequences by America's political and judiciary system. Under the cloak of freedom of speech, and thanks to the Supreme Court's systematic effort to remove barriers preventing the unlimited use of money in political campaign, political spending has spiraled out of control in America.
The pervasiveness of money in American politics is no more apparent than in presidential elections. In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain collectively raised over $1.7 billion. That is more than double the money raised by George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. Obama alone spent $730 million to get elected to the White House in 2008. By contrast, the entire 2010 UK general election, which fielded over 4,000 candidates for Parliament, cost just £31.5 million ($49 million), £10.8 million ($16.8 million) less than the 2005 general elections. David Cameron spent a mere £14,000 ($22,000) on his campaign in 2010, and the average candidate spent just under £3,500.
The rise of outside spending, and particularly of 'SuperPACs,' will push the cost of the 2012 election even higher. Going into Super Tuesday, outside groups had already spent over well over $88 million during this 2012 election cycle. SuperPACs alone have already spent $66 million, $1 million more than SuperPACs spent during the entire 2010 election cycle, and we are still nine months away from the general election.
While factors, such as the advent of 24 hour news industry, have contributed, unbridled political campaign costs, shielded by the systematic misinterpretation of the First Amendment, have been the main barriers preventing those without access to vast amounts of money from running for political office.
Beginning in the 1970s, and culminating in the Citizen's United case in 2010, the Supreme Court has equated political spending to free speech, arguing that any restrictions to that spending curtails a candidates First Amendment rights. Many since abused this interpretation unethically, flooding campaigns with cash at the expense of those without similar financial power. In effect, those without money cannot compete in the US political system.
Restricting political spending is not a 'substantial burden' on free speech rights of candidates, as Chief Justice Roberts recently put it when he struck down matching funds in Arizona last year. Quite the opposite. It broadens free speech to candidates with less money, and requires those with money to compete in a larger field.
The monetary express that has taken over America's politics has gotten out of hand. Only without the distraction of unlimited contributions will politicians be able to focus on their job of governing again. To do this, we must rebuild a campaign finance system predicated on competitive and balanced political spending. More importantly, we must stop abusing the First Amendment as the right to spend unlimited amounts and begin treating the freedom to speech more ethically.