As I walked into the Beth Sholom synagogue, a national historic landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, I recalled my mother’s stories of this congregation. As it happens, Beth Sholom was where my family spent its first Yom Kippur after immigrating to the United States, and the congregation also provided immigrant families like mine with financial assistance upon arriving. The truly breathtaking building, built with a nod to ancient style, is a setting fit for the Civil Discourse Project’s annual Forum.
The Project was founded in honor of a Central alum and Central Hall of Fame member, Bernard Wolfman. Wolfman was a distinguished lawyer, a Presidential advisor, and most importantly, a member of Central High’s Debate Team. As his daughter and leader of the Project, Dina Wolfman-Baker, said, her father “loved Central” and played “tricks on the Latin teacher.” (Unadvisable today)
The rabbis of Beth Sholom congregation conceived of the Project as a way to honor Wolfman’s memory, as he believed “tremendously” in education. The power of knowledge, he thought, is in its potential to give people the ability to take action.
The Forum, besides its setting, has broad religious implications. Wolfman loved Judaism’s focus on humanity and freedom, and it is this spirit of togetherness that led to the Forum’s timing– during Passover. The timing, ideally, allows participants to discuss divisive issues in a civilized, productive way.
This year’s Forum included two distinguished experts, John Samples and Craig Holman, in a discussion of money in politics. Samples, Vice President and publisher of the libertarian CATO Institute, takes the admittedly unpopular view that money has little demonstrable effect on policy. On the contrary, Craig Holman, Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen, helped write campaign finance reform and works to fight the alleged influence of money on policy.
Holman railed against manipulation of current campaign finance rules by corporations and former campaign staff, and lamented the inherently unequal voice of the wealthy in campaign donations. For instance, many “super-pacs”, campaign fundraising committees that are legally required to be independent of candidates, are “set up by former staff” of candidates, and the candidates themselves are allowed to fundraise for super pacs supporting them. It’s not a stretch to think that super pacs aren’t entirely independent, in a literal sense. Independence aside, Holman views the “four-fold increase” of recent years in outside spending as a danger to democracy.
Samples, after acknowledging that he knows most people in the room disagree with him, assuaged the fears of the audience with some much-needed calm language– “It’s really going to be okay,” as he put it. He claimed that, despite the rhetoric of the other side, little evidence exists to show that money has an effect on policy. Indeed, money for influence “is illegal.”
While both Samples and Holman have clearly spent countless hours developing their views, they both ignore, by choice or otherwise, realities contradicting their arguments. Once these realities are acknowledged, however, there exists an imperfect, but workable solution to both the free speech and influence-peddling potential of campaign spending.
Americans share a concern about the potential for illegal influence of politicians using money. Holman clearly plays off the fear of such a concern, but his arguments collapse from a legal perspective. As Samples correctly noted, people only support free speech “in the abstract,” not in particular situations. Money is, legally and logically, a tool of speech. The phrase “vote with your wallet” applies as much to the local grocery store as it does to an election.
While transparency in political spending is key for public education purposes, making money in politics illegal is a clear violation of free speech. Holman continuously emphasizes the inequality of corporate financial power, as compared to that of an average citizen. However, the Supreme Court correctly found that inequality in political spending is no justification for regulation. To prove this, Samples mentions an obvious example– the New York Times. NYT, as a collective, has an enormously greater influence through its speech than any individual American. Yet, we all recognize that NYT has a right to this unequal arrangement of speech; after all, NYT journalists do not magically lose their right to free speech as the newspaper becomes more financially successful. Similarly, a corporation, the sum of a collective of employees working to an end, has as much of a right to free speech as its parts– the employees themselves. Constraining the right of a corporation’s speech is legally equivalent to constraining the right of the employees’ speech. Holman conspicuously ignores the constitutional question, since it’s clearly working against his argument.
Samples, on the other hand, makes an argument beyond the constitutional reality. He claims that corporations aren’t less representative than the American government (quite a grim reality, if true) and that transparency measures bring about “possible retaliation” against donors. While some believers in campaign finance reform might be convinced by the free speech argument, the argument is only effective if the speech is transparent. Samples doesn’t seem to place a high value on common-sense disclosure rules, and the claim that an unelected body is as representative as the U.S. government certainly raises questions.
A workable solution to the concerns of both sides, while imperfect, is a system of partial public financing of elections. Several states, including those as politically incongruous as Vermont and Arizona, have already implemented such a system.
As it currently functions, the system gives candidates an option– take a reasonable government campaign subsidy, and in exchange, forgo the right to take private donations throughout the course of the campaign season.
As Samples mentioned to me in conversation, a major impediment to this system is the objectionable reality that taxpayers will inevitably fund candidates they disagree with. That is undeniably true, but the positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives.
The major benefit of the system is purely numerical– politicians will spend more of their time actually campaigning and governing, instead of fundraising. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a presentation to new members, recommended they spend five hours a day fundraising, including four hours of much-hated calling time. Giving politicians the option to spend all that time actually legislating or meeting with constituents could potentially restore the confidence of the public, and that is no exaggeration.
An ancillary benefit of the partial public finance system is that candidates can no longer claim to take donations from the wealthy out of political necessity or pragmatism. A real moral question may arise when a candidate chooses to spend much of his or her time fundraising, when a reasonable alternative exists.
A partial public finance system ought to, in the spirit of the Forum, bring together both sides of the campaign finance debate, while requiring compromise. Holman has a genuine, widely held concern with the potential of money to be a corrupting factor, while Samples has a justifiable affinity towards the Constitution and the free speech it ensures. A partial public finance system would give candidates the option to run an undeniably clean campaign, while restricting no one’s right to free speech.
If there is anything the Passover story can provide us with in this debate, it is the knowledge that freedom is a moral necessity, but that maintaining it is a difficult and complex task. Our right to speak, with both our words and our wallets, is only worth something in a transparent system that maintains this right.
Michael Moroz (275)