Campaign Burdens

Rich man, poor incumbent


Members of Congress usually have no problem staying in office: They enjoy high name recognition, free publicity, and the power to dispense favors. Since 1980 the re-lection rate in the House of Representatives has ranged from 88 percent to 98 percent. Although congressmen do not consider that situation unfair, they are outraged that wealthy challengers can spend as much of their own money as they want in an attempt to overcome the advantages of incumbency.

Too bad, the Supreme Court said in a June decision. The Court overturned a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that tripled the individual contribution limit and eliminated the cap on coordinated party expenditures for congressional candidates running against wealthy people financing their own campaigns. "The unprecedented step of imposing different…limits on candidates vying for the same seat is antithetical to the First Amendment," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the five-member majority. He said it imposes a burden on speech that is not justified by a compelling government interest.

Alito noted that the usual rationale for campaign finance restrictions, the need to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption, does not apply to self-financing candidates, who are beholden only to themselves. He rejected the Justice Department's claim that asymmetrical rules are necessary to "level electoral opportunities," saying that argument "has ominous implications because it would permit Congress to arrogate the voters' authority to evaluate the strengths of candidates competing for office."

Alito observed that "different candidates have different strengths." Some are wealthy or have wealthy supporters; some are celebrities or come from famous families. It's up to the public to weigh these and other arguably irrelevant advantages, Alito said, since the Constitution "confers upon voters, not Congress, the power to choose the Members of the House of Representatives." He warned that "it is a dangerous business for Congress to use the election laws to influence the voters' choices."