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To fight inequality, first understand the problem

| Thursday, November 5, 2015

In BridgeND’s last Viewpoint column, Liam Dalton proposed that the key to enacting serious and expedient solutions to income inequality was to revamp our nation’s campaign finance regulatory system, starting with overturning the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I am not convinced such action would produce the results we desire.

First, proponents of Dalton’s view too easily dismiss controversies that legal theorists have debated for decades. There are legitimate constitutional questions regarding the interplay between first amendment guarantees of free speech and the government’s ability to regulate campaign donations. For today’s purposes, however, let’s assume these questions are not an issue.

Put simply, would overturning Citizens United result in a transformation of our electoral system such that it would alleviate the problem of income inequality?

Citizens United is nothing unique, but only the latest in decades of cases regarding the constitutional limits of campaign finance law. However, prior to the 1974 case of Buckley v. Valeo, Congress was allowed virtual free reign in the realm of campaign finance, and crafted policy very much in line with the views of Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders today. The liberal exercise of these powers was embodied most fully in the Tillman Act of 1907, which fully prohibited monetary contribution to national political campaigns by corporations.

Was the electoral system idyllic under such regulations? Hardly. In the twenty years following the adoption of the Tillman Act, monetary expenditures in national elections quadrupled. What’s more, the “Roaring Twenties” saw the highest levels of income inequality in the 20th century, casting doubt on Dalton’s assumption that campaign finance regulation would necessarily allow for the expedient solution of the problem.

This disconnect between cause and supposed effect continues on to the present. Campaign finance regulation tightened for decades with the establishment of the Federal Election Commission and the enactment of the Hatch Act, Smith-Connally Act and Taft-Hartley Act. Then, beginning in the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court ushered in an era of deregulation, culminating in the Citizens United case of 2010. Throughout both of these time periods, national campaign expenditures have relentlessly skyrocketed and the nation has endured rising and falling levels of income inequality.

Even if we were to imagine a scenario like Dalton recommends, would the results be valuable? Imagine that the Tillman Act was not only reinstated, but strictly enforced and entirely complied with. History has already shown us this would do nothing to change the role that money plays in our electoral system, and thus would undoubtedly fail to end the modern phenomenon of the “endless campaign.”

As Dalton noted, House members, with their two-year terms, are geared especially towards “optimal democratic response.” Let’s make the bold assumption that reenacting the old systems of campaign finance regulation would free politicians of the burdens of elite corporate monetary interests and allow them to turn their attention entirely to the task of representing the average voter. Would politicians then in fact be spurred on to solve our current dilemma of income inequality? Dalton claims “the vast majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed,” but recent studies may point in a different direction.

Experts at the Brookings Institution note that Americans have always historically felt dissatisfied with income distribution in the country, but that 2009 marked a historic low for such disapproval. What’s more, the report noted, “In early 2011 Gallup polling that asked for an open-ended response to the question of what is America’s most important problem, just one percent said inequality, well below pressing issues like ‘lack of respect for each other’ and ‘foreign aid,’ to name just two.”

If the solution to income inequality is to come by way of public fervor and grassroots movement, we may be in for a long wait. Perhaps, in the end, it is not entirely surprising that campaign finance reform has never historically solved the issue of income inequality. The situation, however, does beg some serious questions. Why is it that politicians seemingly concern themselves with policy that benefits the few over the many? Why is it that over the past century, corporations and special interests have bothered to spend tens of billions of their own dollars in attempting to influence Congress? Why is it that six of the ten wealthiest counties in the nation are centered around the capital, and that D.C. remains the most expensive city in the country? There is an undeniable glut of money and power festering within Washington, and the consequences of that glut have rarely been beneficial for “Main Street America.” Perhaps instead of attempting to shut the money valve off via campaign finance regulation — a solution that has never produced tangible results — we should begin asking ourselves hard questions about when and how this became a problem.

Dalton’s points are not without merit. Campaign finance reform is a worthy matter of discussion, both in its proper role within our constitutional regime and in the place it has in facilitating just elections that fairly represent the will of the people. However, it is my sense that as far as income inequality is concerned, some digging remains to be done. The issue is enormously complex, and ingrained in our nation’s economic and social fabric. Tackling it will require a comprehensive and systemic approach. To this end, I am proud of the work that BridgeND has done thus far this semester. The discourse we work to foster is the first step in reaching beyond ideological lines and producing substantive solutions.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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