While the rest of you were watching Trista and Ryan’s wedding last month, those of us in Washington, D.C., were abuzz over the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the power of Congress to limit campaign contributions. ABC’s “wedding of the decade” was the No. 1 program that week in each of the Top 10 TV markets except for D.C., where it was defeated by a Law & Order rerun. For those coming late: Trista was the star of a reality TV show called The Bachelorette in which she had to winnow a field of 25 bachelors down to one. A guy voted off the show in the first few weeks admitted his campaign was hurt badly by the fact that he didn’t tell Trista how much he loved her; think Ted Kennedy fumbling the question “Why do you want to be president?” Thanks to his blunt-spokenness and success despite average looks in a field of blow-dried bobble dolls, another bachelor developed such a rabid Internet following that ABC made him the star of his own show—think Howard Dean a year from now. Interestingly—and here is where The Bachelorette has implications for presidential politics in the age of campaign finance reform—Ryan’s winning campaign connected with voters based on his looks, brains, and personality.
Unlike The Bachelorette, American elections have come to work more like game shows in which the contestant with the most money wins. Candidates are judged as much by their ability to raise money as they are by their ideas. Worse, the vast majority of this money comes from big corporate donors like Enron (which, in 2002, had given money to over 70 percent of Congress) and Halliburton, most of whom expect tax breaks, government contracts, and special treatment in return.
How did things come to this? Historically, the right of a few wealthy donors to make huge, unregulated contributions to political parties has been justified by the argument that “money equals speech,” or that giving money to a political candidate or party is somehow a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. Last week, in McConnell v. FEC, the court rejected this “money equals speech” argument in one of its most significant rulings since Brown v. Board of Education. That case debunked the “separate but equal” argument used to justify racial segregation. Now the court has taken the first step toward ending the economic segregation between those who can and those who cannot afford access to their elected officials. As Democratic representative John Lewis, of Georgia, says about the link between campaign contributions and social and racial injustice, “We didn’t face down police dogs and fire hoses and police with clubs to win the right to vote for all Americans, only to see the influence of every vote diluted by huge campaign contributions.”
Less than 2 percent of Americans give money to political candidates, and you can bet this group is poorly represented among the 45 million who don’t have health care and can only get it with the help of politicians who owe their jobs to the drug companies and HMOs that help finance their campaigns. As John McCain said when running for president in 2000, the reason we can’t have health care reform in America is that the Republicans are beholden to the drug companies and the Democrats are beholden to the trial lawyers. Millions more are forced to drink water laced with lead or pesticides while attempts to regulate these poisons are thwarted by campaign contributions from landlords and Archer Daniels Midland (though you have to give it up to a company smart enough to sponsor both Bob Dole and The News Hour With Jim Lehrer in 1996). As for our air, a recent segment on the Mutual of Omaha-sponsored NOW With Bill Moyers showed how toxins inhaled by a pregnant woman can enter her uterus and become part of her baby’s DNA.
Who will ask the tough questions about the effect of the tens of millions of dollars in contributions from polluters on environmental policy? Not the TV and radio stations dependent on car manufacturers for advertising revenue. Where I live our local cable company even lets elected officials write the questions they would like to be asked by a “reporter” on its local newscast. Imagine all of this and you’d have a place in which money was speech, companies had the same rights as people (a distortion first advanced in the 1870s by railroads who argued that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures meant that the government could not inspect their cars), and politicians were the media.
Who will make campaign finance reform as popular as The Bachelorette, Survivor, or American Idol? Fortunately, Quentin Tarantino has already made an R-rated live-action version of that old Saturday morning “how a bill becomes a law” cartoon—we’ll see it next year when Miramax rolls out Kill Bill Vol. 2. There are five bills in all, each played by a sexy actor or actress, each with a special technique for slaying the armies of special-interest lobbyists. In a career-revivifying role, Jane Fonda stars as Prescription Drug Price Cap Bill. Blackmail is her weapon, and she passes the House by threatening to reveal which senators and congressmen use their taxpayer-funded health insurance to pay for Viagra. Pam Grier co-stars as Food Quality Protection Act. (See how much easier it is to read these boring bill titles when they are preceded by celebrities’ names?) Her weapon is the pen, and she writes an exposé of Democratic representative Charles Stenholm of Texas, who after receiving 35 times as much money from agribusiness as the average member of Congress, introduced a bill that would have allowed new pesticides to be used on foods that are largely consumed by children, and would have weakened existing children’s health protections under the bill played by Pam Grier. Steve Buscemi is Blue Skies Initiative, a bogus bill introduced by the energy industry. A master of disguise, Blue Skies attends various fundraisers for members of both parties and convinces energy companies to give to both, the better to get their phone calls returned.
Inspired by the mind-boggling coalition of groups that fought the FCC’s attempt to raise the limit on the number of TV stations one person can own—a coalition that included everyone from the NRA to the ACLU to the conservative Family Values Center—Free Air Time Bill is played by a white-looking black character (Anthony Hopkins) who has infiltrated the KKK and become its lobbyist for a bill to give free television time to all political candidates. Finally, and most importantly, Tarantino himself plays the bill to adopt public financing of campaigns. He’s perfect for the role because the main argument against public financing is that our taxes should not be used to support potentially offensive speech, and he does for offensive speech what Ulysses does for going to the bathroom: raises it to an art. In a boldly self-reflexive move, Tarantino’s weapon is filmmaking, and he becomes law after making a film about the ways in which American democracy is killing bills—and people too.
James Browning is the executive director of Common Cause Maryland.