The SCOTUS Busts a Cap

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The Supreme Court has overturned Vermont's stringent campaign finance laws—laws which, for example, capped spending for a gubernatorial candidate at a little over $300,000.

In a fractured set of opinions, justices said they were not sweeping aside 30 years of election finance precedent but rather finding only that Vermont's law—the strictest in the nation—sets limits that unconstitutionally hamstring candidates.

The majority took issue with Vermont legislators for "constraining speech" by telling candidates and voters how much campaigning was enough.

The timing is amusing; Vermont's law only affected non-federal races, but the U.S. Senate race shaping up now is already the most expensive in state history. Billionaire businessman Rich Tarrant (yes, he's dumb enough to appear on the ballot as "Rich") has spent more than $3 million to fight for the Republican nomination. If he wins that, he'll face independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, who's endorsed by Democrats and spent around $2 million of individual donations and PAC money. Early on, Sanders proposed limiting spending by both candidates to $2.25 million, but that had less to do with rigorous campaign finance ethics than the fear that Tarrant would sink $10 million into the race. All this is happening despite the fact that Sanders is leading by around 40 points in the polls. A billionaire gets to stroke his ego; Vermont TV stations rake in the bucks; and Vermont elects a(nother) Socialist to represent them in Congress. Who needs campaign spending caps?

NEXT: Who Died and Made Him King?

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  1. But if spending isn’t speech, how does constraining spending constrain speech?

  2. You know, out of all the stupid campaign finance laws, I’ve always had this voice in the back of my head that wonders whether an actual spending cap on the candidates themselves would be a good thing. Just think about how much time and money is wasted for our idiot politicians to fly around and “fundraise”. I know, it’d probably just divert the money to private cheerleaders, but at least the candidates wouldn’t be spending as many taxpayer dollars to jet across the country.

  3. Caps on campaign spending are a huge advantage to incumbents. Basically incumbents have a huge amount of free publicity as sitting office holders, and to overcome this free publicity the opponent(s) must spend a huge amount of money just to equalize.

    Thus any race where both (assuming a two candidate race) candidates spend the same amount of money favors the incumbent. Any low spending race hugely favors the incumbent, while only a high spending race gives the challenged a reasonable chance to win.

    This is the real reason for Mcain/Feingold in my opinion. It is an incumbent protection act. Any time you hear a politician come out in favor of campaign finance reform you should run for the hills.

  4. It is an incumbent protection act. Any time you hear a politician come out in favor of campaign finance reform you should run for the hills.

    Indeed, as evidenced by the “bipartisan support” it got when proposed – one thing everyone in Congress can agree on is how to make it harder to remove them.

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  7. While it may be given that incumbents don’t “need” to spend as much as challengers to gain basic name awareness, I find it hard to beleive that more money = better outcomes for challengers…would seem to be tough to control for all the other variables. Howard Dean’s campaign comes to mind. Much ado about nothing?

  8. Just out of curiousity, what is the source for Rich Tarrant that says he is a billionaire.

    The most informative source of rich people I know of doesn’t list him as being in that ultrarich category.

    Which is not to say they are right, or that he isn’t very rich….

  9. Richard: I think Tarrant would have had a shot if Vermonters thought that the Republican Party would treat him any better than they did Jeffords. Tarrant’s moderate views have no chance of a hearing under the current Republican leadership, and Vermonters know it (this will probably also tank Martha Rainville’s campaign for the House, although it will be much closer). I wholeheartedly agree we need to keep Bernie in Washington and out of Vermont. By the way, I don’t agree that Bernie will be “ineffective” in the Senate. I disagree with 90% of everything he says, but I have to admit he has been very effective at building coalitions in both parties for specific legislative initiatives, including the Northeast Dairy Compact and limiting the scope of the Patriot Act (which was only defeated when the House leadership held the vote open for a couple of decades so they could do some extra arm-twisting). That was a remarkable achievement for a single Congressman from a tiny state, regardless of what you think about his politics.

  10. Happyjuggler: The company he founded, IDX, was sold for $1.2 billion, but he didn’t own all of the stock, so I’m not sure if he is a billionaire or not.

  11. Rich Tarrant isn’t a billionaire. He’s a millionaire. And there is still a huge difference.

  12. “A recent sale of IDX to General Electric Healthcare netted Tarrant more than $100 million.”

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