Commentary: Clearing up "Foggy" campaign finance picture

Oct 16, 2012

Why is so much money spent on campaign advertising?  Why can’t it be restricted?  Why can’t the U.S. have elections like Britain or Canada, where campaigns last about five weeks?

Tonight when you say to your TV: “If I see one more negative ad I’ll scream” and then you see two more before the words have left your mouth, think of the acronym:


F stands for First Amendment, as in the Constitution.  The Supreme Court has ruled, many times, that campaign ads are speech, about which Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  This means basically that your candidate can spend unlimited amounts of money to say good things about herself and to say nasty things about her opponent.

O stands for Outside Groups, such as SuperPACs and Nonprofits.  They raise obscene amounts of money and are not supposed to coordinate their activities with the candidates or parties they support.  Right.  And the lion and the lamb will lie down together.

G stands for Giving, which actually can be restricted.  Your contributions are not protected speech.  Say you give a gazillion dollars to your favorite candidate; there might be the slight whiff of an expectation that he will be best friends forever.  There is no limit, however, on how much you can give to a SuperPAC or a Nonprofit, and if you give to a Nonprofit your name is kept secret.

G stands a second time for giving, this time groups giving to campaigns.  Political committees – those that directly support the candidates and their parties – can give as much as they raise, but disclosures and disclaimers are required.  SuperPACs and Nonprofits can, essentially without limit, spend until the lion and the lamb lie down together, which will be in the seriously distant future.

So, in five words: Giving: Limits.  Spending: No limits.

Y stands for You, the target of all this media creativity and deep meaning.  You, the voter, who has shown you respond well to negative advertising, so that’s what you get.  You, the voter, who has elected the most polarized Congress in a century, one so bad that bad law or no law is what you get.  You, the voter, who keeps that TV on so ads can run, when you could be getting some fresh air or helping a neighbor in need or reading to the kids.

But you – we Americans -- do have our priorities and these priorities actually put campaign spending, as excessive as it appears, in perspective.  This year all the SuperPACs and Nonprofits and parties and candidates will spend less that we Americans will spend on – wait for it -- potato chips.

So the acronym – FOGGY: First Amendment.  Outside groups.  Giving by individuals to groups.  Giving by groups to campaigns.  You – the enabler.  Stop encouraging them.  Turn off your TV.  Get some fresh air.  Help your neighbor.  Read to your kids.  Oh yes.  And vote.