No Seats for Sale

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

IT'S NOT OFTEN that the rich claim they've been unduly burdened because of their fortunes. But that is essentially what self-made millionaire Jack Davis is arguing in a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court today. Mr. Davis unsuccessfully ran in 2004 and 2006 for a New York seat in the House of Representatives; he spent millions of dollars of his own money to fund his campaigns. As a result, Mr. Davis triggered the "Millionaires' Amendment," a provision in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that allows opponents of self-financed candidates to collect more from individual contributors and national parties than federal law normally allows. The amendment requires self-financed candidates in a House race to disclose to the Federal Election Commission and opponents when they have spent more than $350,000 of their own money. This disclosure, which must take place within 24 hours after the $350,000 mark has been passed, puts competitors on notice that they may be eligible for the higher contribution levels. Similar spending triggers and notification provisions apply to Senate races. The goal of the amendment is to level the financial playing field between wealthy candidates who can spend unlimited amounts of money to bankroll their campaigns and those with fewer resources who are forced to abide by federally regulated donation limits.

Mr. Davis argues that the Millionaires' Amendment will deter wealthy individuals from funding their own campaigns. He claims that it violates the Fifth Amendment's equal protection clause because it treats self-financed candidates differently by giving opponents an unfair advantage in raising funds. He also contends that the reporting requirements violate the First Amendment by forcing self-financed candidates to release strategic information about their campaigns.

A special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected these claims, and so should the Supreme Court. The amendment does nothing to limit Mr. Davis's or any other self-financed candidate's expenditures; they are free to spend as much of their own money as they'd like. Mr. Davis would eventually have had to disclose how much of his own money he spent; the amendment requires only that he do so earlier in the campaign. And Mr. Davis -- who has announced his intention to self-fund another run for the New York seat -- provides evidence that the amendment does not inhibit wealthy candidates from using their own money to run for office.

The public good is served when voters have confidence that seats cannot be bought. The disclosure rules and accommodations required by the amendment fairly promote that goal and should be upheld.

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