By Kat Riddler, Editor-In-Chief
“Do you think that we as the United States spend more on federal campaigns or potato chips?” Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life, asked participants at the What’s Current Wednesday discussion on November 2.
Siewert said, “We spend slightly more on political campaigns than potato chips. But that is only a recent occurrence. In 2012, campaigns overtook potato chips…The only reason that we overtook potato chips in 2012 is not because spending is going up so fast but because the spending on potato chips is going down.”
So which is more important: potato chips or politics? Siewert used a spending comparison to show that $6 billion—what Americans may perceive as a large amount of money—is only a “pretty small percentage” of the money being spent nationally. He also pointed out that the American political process is important, and therefore that number is not nearly as shocking when comparing it to what Americans are spending on snacks.
The What’s Current Wednesday discussion topic was “Campaign Financing: A Brave New World.” The topic was more fully explored with discussion of campaign spending limits, and ranged from local to national political races. Siewert stated that there were usually three reasons to put campaign finance reform in place: corruption, unequal access to the political process, and political polarization.
Besides talking about clear answers for reform, Siewert discussed with attendees why people would be against reform. The big concern is with freedom of speech and the interpretation that money is speech. The government must be very careful in reforming money transactions if money is seen as speech. Siewert said, “The Supreme Court, which has recognized money as a form of free speech, has been getting more and more careful about it, stepping further and further back saying that money is a form of free speech and can only be regulated if there is a compelling state interest.” Corruption is the only “compelling state interest” that the Supreme Court looks at currently.
This becomes even trickier as the Supreme Court ruled that paying for access to a candidate is not corruption. A recent case of this ruling was with the case of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, who had several luxurious gifts given to him by a wealthy business owner while he was in office. While it may look like McDonnell was taking a bribe of sorts, it becomes difficult in a court of law to prove that accusation.
Besides the freedom of speech issue, the other problem with campaign finance reform is that reforms do not usually work. If the money is blocked one way, money will be donated another way, and it might be even less transparent if it is donated the new way (so called dark money).
Missouri has previously attempted to enforce campaign donation limits. Senator Wayne Goode, whose statue is near the lakes outside of the Millennium Student Center, introduced campaign contribution limits in Missouri. The fight over that law went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. One problem pointed out was that instead of giving money to individuals, people would give money to committees. When looking at states that pass reforms and those that do not, according to Siewert, there did not seem to be a strong correlation between laws limiting contributions and the actual amount of money spent.
Hoping to continue the discussion, Siewert brought flyers for the 5th Annual Public Ethics Conference, which will be held March 24 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The topic of “Ethics, Money, and Politics” in relation to campaign spending will be discussed by two political analyst authors.
The next What’s Current Wednesday, hosted by The Current and The New York Times with support from the Community Outreach & Engagement will be held February 1 at 2 p.m. in Century Room C of the MSC.