Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April, 2001

A Bribe by Any Other Name...

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Now let's see if I have this straight.

If you hand a building inspector an envelope with $1000 in it and ask him to please overlook the code violations in your apartment building, you are breaking the law, and if the inspector turns this evidence over to an honest DA, you are likely headed for the slammer.

And the same result may await you if you hand a Senator ten grand in exchange for his vote on a housing bill.

But if, instead, you hand that cash over to the same Senator's campaign committee, with the same express purpose of "purchasing" influence and legislation, you are exercising your "First Amendment Right" to free speech.

If you believe that, then I have a "tax reduction plan" I'd like to sell you.

And yet, that is how the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo: "cash is speech."  But if so, then one's "speech" (which is to say, one's influence with the Congress) is proportional to one's wealth.

Presumably, the justices did not look up to read the words carved over the entrance to their "temple of justice:" "Equal Justice Under Law."

Should we apportion political clout with wealth? If so, then it follows that the CEO of a major corporation who, we have learned, earns 400 times as much as the ordinary worker, is entitled to 400 votes, to the single vote of us ordinary peons.  (For that 400 figure, see "The Deserving Rich?" this site).

That suggestion is outrageous on its face: Our political traditions and morality forbid such inequality. Fundamental to that tradition is the belief that each citizen counts for one, and no citizen counts for more than one. "Equal Justice Under Law."

Why, then, are some citizens permitted to purchase disproportionate access to and influence on our legislators? Must we concede that "some citizens are more equal than others"?

The McCain-Feingold Bill, which was just signed by George Bush, appears be a small step toward an equalization of the political playing field. However, despite the good intentions behind the bill, we have serious qualms about it.

The much-esteemed American Civil Liberties Union opposes McCain-Feingold on First Amendment grounds. While we believe that the ACLU gives insufficient attention to the aforementioned "wealth-apportionment" factor, we too must wonder about the provision in the bill which bans "issue ads" within sixty days of a general election by non-profit groups, for-profit corporations, labor unions and trade associations Does this mean that in the final two months, political debate will largely be confined to reportage by the commercial media? Consider the media coverage, (better, the "spin,") during the past campaign, whereby Al Gore was slandered and Bush's manifest disqualifications were routinely ignored or discounted. (See our "Post Modern Politics")  Apparently, the mass media, primarily owned and controlled by conservative mega-corporations, will now become the primary source of political (mis)information. Not a happy prospect.

Be that as it may,  the powerful interests will now commence their search for evasions and loopholes. History shows that electoral "reforms" have a way of evolving into abuses. 

Accordingly, it is not too early to think about the next step in the continuing struggle to return our election campaigns, and thereby our government, back to "We the People of the United States." 

Here are our proposals with the first, we believe, being more important then all the others combined.

First and Foremost: Establish a statutory limit on campaign funds. We understand that up to two billion dollars were spent on the 2000 presidential campaign (half of that in broadcast advertisements). We propose a limit of $100 million per Presidential candidate (indexed to year 2001 dollars). Twenty million should suffice for a Senate campaign, and five million for a House race. (These are "ballpark" figures, and we might be persuaded to alter them. For example, Senate limits might be apportioned to state populations. What is important here is the idea of a statutory limit).

If the total can be collected with relative ease, and if there is a limit to personal donations (see below), then no special interest can have a disproportional influence upon the candidate, who can tell a contributor, in effect, "while I would sincerely appreciate your support, if you choose not to contribute, I will have little trouble obtaining funds elsewhere." 

A limit on campaign spending would end the race to gain funding advantage over one's political rivals. Senators and Congresspersons relieved, at last, of the constant burden of fund-raising, might just possibly take the time and trouble to study the legislation they are called upon to vote on. 

The proposal has the additional merit of avoiding First Amendment concerns. Anyone is free to contribute in support of a candidate until the statutory limit is achieved, after which all further contributions would either be returned to the contributors, or turned over to a "blind fund" which might be used to fund non-partisan debates by the candidates. All contributions must be reported by the candidates to the Election Commission (failure to do so would be a punishable offense). Because these opportunities and restrictions apply equally to all, there is no discrimination here.

Second: There must be a limit on personal contributions to candidates. A thousand dollars seems about right (the McCain-Feingold limit is $2000). Corporate and labor union contributions should be banned, though corporate, union, and other organizational officers should be free to urge members to contribute. However, it should be illegal for such officers to determine whether or not any solicited individuals chose to follow such advice i.e., contributions should be entirely voluntary, and there should be no opportunity for "retaliation" for those individuals who choose not to contribute, or to contribute to the "wrong" candidate.

Third: Free prime-time access should be given to all candidates. In one of the most outrageous government giveaways in history, the commercial media recently acquired billions of dollars worth of the publicly owned broadcast frequencies. Thus they have no cause to complain if they are required to live up to the FCC requirement that they devote some of their time to "the public interest" (as explicitly stipulated in the Federal Communications Act -- and scrupulously evaded by Bush's FCC Chairman, Michael Powell).  This donated time should show the faces, and broadcast the words, of the candidates, preferably in debate. The shameful "image ads" e.g., "Willie Horton," "Boston Harbor," "Morning in America" must not be banned outright (First Amendment again), but they should be displayed only on time purchased by the campaigns. Moreover, campaign messages and images should be regarded as "fair game" for criticism and rebuttal by journalists and other experts. And speaking of the media, 

Fourth: "The Fairness Doctrine," discontinued during the Reagan Administration, must be restored forthwith, thus offering once again, a platform for "responsible opposing opinions." (How long has it been since we have heard these words on our broadcast media!) The Reaganite theory was that, with the expansion of media outlets, all opinions would have an opportunity to be heard. Instead, daytime "talk radio" has become a virtually unopposed platform of right-wing ranting, and "Cable News" outlets such as MSNBC and FOX scarcely less so. The commercial networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX) have cut back on their news budgets, and what remains is a "spectrum" of opinion from moderate right to far right. Small wonder: each of these networks is owned by vast commercial conglomerates. It is a mystery how anyone who followed the 2000 Election on the mass media can still believe in the myth of "the liberal media." (See the Fairness and Accuracy in Media FAIR website: www.fair.org also, our "Following the Light"). 

The condition of the printed media is no better. The Newspaper Association of America reports that six companies own more than half of the 1483 daily newspapers remaining in the United States.

Finally: there should be no restriction (apart from the above stipulated funding limit) on political broadcast advertising, but all such advertising must include payment for equal time for rebuttal by opposing candidates. . This proposal carries some enticing implications. First of all, political campaigns will, in effect, be subsidizing responses by their opponents. Second, and as a result, the cost of broadcast ads will increase with a consequent disincentive for candidates to use this much-abused mode of campaigning. Third, facing the prospect of rebuttal, campaign managers will be less inclined to resort to slander, misinformation and innuendo. (To take one example: Bush Senior's devastatingly effective1988 "Boston Harbor" ad showed scenes that were in fact photographed in Rhode Island, and blamed Gov. Dukakis for pollution created by a previous Republican Governor which was substantially improved during the Dukakis administration. The Dukakis campaign foolishly declined to rebut that ad). Fourth, There is no First Amendment problem here. Every candidate is hereby free to present his or her case to the voters. However, according to this proposal, any such presentation opens the door to rebuttal and the expression of contrary opinions which, as Madison and Jefferson so eloquently urged, are the soul of democratic government. 

Copyright 2001 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .