Campaign Finance Reform Meets Kurt Vonnegut

This morning, as Pennsylvania Democrats went to the polls in the last large primary before their nominating convention, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law: Davis v. FEC, in which Cato filed an amicus brief, questions the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” which attempts to discourage candidates for election to Congress from spending more than $350,000 from their own personal funds. It penalizes campaign spending above that threshold by enhacing the political speech of the self-financing candidate’s opponent through increased contribution limits and unlimited coordinated party expenditures. This penalty unconstitutionally chills candidates from engaging in protected political speech beyond that personal funds ceiling, and does so without serving any governmental interest that the Supreme Court has recognized. The penalty doesn’t even prevent the “corruption” that was the rationale for McCain-Feingold, because there is no threat of quid pro quo from a candidates’s expenditure of her own funds. And the Court has expressly rejected “leveling the playing field” of financial resources as an interest sufficient to justofy the infringement of First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the “Millionaires’ Amendment” is nothing more than an incumbency protection mechanism designed by Congress for its own benefit.

Based on this morning’s argument, I think the Court will issue a narrow decision striking down the Millionaires’ Amendment based on the disclosure burden, with separate concurrences on broader First Amendment grounds. The most interesting questioning, not unexpectedly, came from Justice Scalia, who, evoked the reductio ad absurdum of the “leveling” provision (which reminded me of the old Vonnegut story about equality run amock, Harrison Bergeron): “What if one candidate is more eloquent than the other one? You make him talk with pebbles in his mouth?”

Note: John Samples and I visited Capitol Hill yesterday to give a public briefing on the law and policy of self-funded campaigns.