Guest speaker Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the CATO Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies, delivered with studied eloquence, pointed critique, and sprinkles of humor, his defense of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) on Monday evening before an audience of 35 Swarthmore students, holding his libertarian viewpoints to the microscope of a predominantly liberal crowd.
Cognizant of the liberal slant present in the room, Burrus opened with light-hearted satire. “For those of us who don’t know about CATO, we are an evil think tank funded by evil people to do dastardly things.” Burrus joked. He then transitioned to briefly describe libertarian thought, categorizing it as “a little bit left, a little bit right” with an ultimate view of limiting government’s power. He touched upon several stances that libertarians support. For example, libertarians support immigration, gay marriage, and the legalization of marijuana, positions generally shared by members of the left. Once Burrus established a sense of unity, he wheeled out the main entree of the night, a dish sizzling with the heat of controversy and ready to be served, campaign finance reform.
To provide some context, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC that restrictions placed upon independent political expenditures made by corporations or unions were unconstitutional, overturning the precedent established in Austin v. Michigan State of Commerce (1990) which upheld the constitutionality of restricting corporate speech. To clarify, contributions are funds given directly to candidates and are restricted, whereas expenditures are funds used to advocate for or against a candidate. Expenditures must not be made in coordination with a candidate and, as a consequence of the Court’s ruling in Citizens United are not restricted.
Campaign finance restrictions, Burrus asserted, “not only violate the 1st amendment, but also represent politics at its worst.” He elaborated that political speech sits at the very core of all 1st amendment values and attempts to limit money in politics represent poorly veiled attempts to limit political speech. Burrus explained that the desire to do so is driven by the notion that silencing voices that disagree with one, whether those voices belong to the Koch brothers or the NRA, will produce legislation that better aligns with one’s beliefs. Burrus argued that if government is granted the regulatory power to restrict monetary, and consequently, political speech, then government is effectively given the ability to determine what constitutes corruption in “the marketplace of ideas.” “This to me is the most terrifying thing about campaign finance reform,” Burrus stated. Because the government is “a player in the political debate,” it cannot be entrusted to objectively reform the process by which it attains power, Burrus argued.
But doesn’t money corrupt politicians? The Court ruled that only the direct exchange of favors, or quid pro quo corruption is regulable; the indirect influences of money, such as donating to gain access to a politician, are not. Burrus conceded that money does corrupt politics, but not to an extent great enough to necessitate campaign finance reform. He pointed to the ambiguous correlation between money and politicians’ voting record and the relatively small impact that the former had on the latter. Referencing a 2003 study conducted by MIT faculty titled “Why Is There so Little Money in U.S. Politics?”, Burrus emphasized that if money had a great an influence on politicians as perceived, there would be much more money in politics. He noted that members of Congress, keen on re-election, must focus on keeping the constituency that elects them (voters) and the constituency that nominates them (party) satisfied, rather than their donors.
Burrus then enumerated several detrimental effects of campaign finance regulation. Key among them were how regulations:
- Entrench the status quo / perpetuate incumbency advantage by hamstringing candidates who don’t have much money, generally challengers who need money to disseminate their ideas.
- Encourage uncoordinated funding and negative ads, because such ads garner the most media attention.
- Increase the amount of influence peddling / corruption.
- To engender change, organizations could seek to put new candidates in office, but because of the difficulty associated with unseating an incumbent, these organizations instead try to influence those currently in office.
With these contentions lingering in the thoughts of all present, a Q&A session quickly followed. Referencing Burrus’ belief that restrictions proliferate uncoordinated funding and negative attack ads, one audience member asked if the the creation of Super PAC’s as a result of uncapped independent expenditures, actually perpetuated both when the organizations aren’t held accountable for what’s being said. Burrus answered in an indirect manner, neither opposing nor affirming the question; and instead posed questions concerning the broader goals and purposes of campaign finance restrictions. “I don’t think trying to equalize voices is a valid governmental goal.” Burrus stated. “I think not corrupting government is a pretty good one, but we need a good definition of that.”
After Burrus’ presentation, I caught up with Patrick Holland ’17, who worked to organize the event. Holland stated, “I hope it changed some minds, I’m not sure it did, but it certainly got people thinking.” When asked how the political demographic of Swarthmore affected Burrus’ presentation, Holland replied, “The ideas can still be presented. I think that it can be made in ways that really do appeal to liberal audiences. Everyone has the same end goal in mind. Everyone wants a more democratic society, and that’s really the way that he lodged his arguments and made them. And I think when you do that you can really cross ideological barriers.”
Gloria Kim ‘18 echoed Holland’s sentiments, saying, “I hope that this kind of conversation can continue about policy discussion…What I really liked was that he wasn’t trying to convince everyone that they’re wrong. He was saying that this is a complex issue that doesn’t have clear black and white answers.”
Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland ’18, a self-described proponent of the left on issues of campaign finance, responded, “It was certainly the opposite perspective of what I’m used to hearing.” In reference to Burrus’ last assertion that challengers need a lot of money to challenge incumbents, Fitzgerald-Holland commented, “The biggest issue I had with his argument was what I felt was a contradiction…between saying that money in the end doesn’t actually influence voters and money is everything for voters.”
Ultimately, Fitzgerald-Holland concluded, Burrus’ talk, “does certainly bring up certain questions…and that’s something that I’m going to think about for a while.”