Commentary Magazine


Incumbent Protection Plan in the Works

Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.

The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.

From its inception in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the cause of campaign finance reform has been a futile effort to get money out of politics. But all the successive attempts to legislate limits on spending have done is to create new laws that only serve to make both politicians and parties less, rather than more accountable.

While Citizens United and the super PACs they have unleashed have been relentlessly portrayed in liberal organs like the Times as promoting corruption or undermining democracy, their real impact has been just the opposite. They have opened up the free market of ideas for both sides of the aisle, liberals as well as conservatives, helping to promote accountability. By making it easier for groups to spend money promoting their ideas and/or opposing candidates, the court has destroyed the dynamic of most congressional races in which it was virtually impossible for challengers to raise enough money to take on entrenched incumbents.

The victim of Citizens United isn’t democracy; it’s the laws and traditions of congressional politics that amounted to a near-foolproof incumbent protection plan. Incumbents are magnets for campaign contributions because everyone with a cause or an interest to be served by congressional legislation or influence wants to be in their good graces. There is no such incentive to help their challengers.

The mainstream media, which prizes its constitutionally protected right to exercise influence on elections, similarly looks askance at efforts to break up their monopoly on campaign information via campaign advertising. Citizens United has not injected more money into our political system, since money has always been — and always will be — an integral part of campaigns. Though incumbents will always have great advantages, what the High Court has done is to tilt the playing field a little bit more toward the challengers. And that’s what’s really got many of those quoted in the Times story upset. It wasn’t as the incumbents claim that the voice of the average voter is being diluted, but their monopoly on power. They want less democracy, not more.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rightly pointed out, “the courts have said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech.” But don’t expect that to inhibit politicians who would like to make it easier on themselves in 2014. Nevertheless, those Republicans quoted in the piece as favoring such limits ought to expect conservatives to remember their self-interested apostasy during the next election cycle.