Campaign finance reformers took another blow yesterday in the Supreme Court decision throwing out Montana’s campaign finance reforms, but it is often darkest before the dawn. The history of campaign finance reform is one of excess followed by reform. Just as Watergate created the reform laws of 1974, so too did the Clinton fundraising excesses give life and lead to the passage of the long-stalled McCain-Feingold legislation. Then, of course, as it has been lately wanting to do, the Supreme Court got into the act and neutered an act of Congress. As Jeffrey Toobin and others have documented, in the Citizens United case the court’s traditional activism reached a height not seen since Gore vs. Bush when it did something it wasn’t even asked to do: It opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate and individual donations.
Americans are now watching a spectacle which is only in its first act: Special and single interest donors writing checks — with 7 or 8 zeroes — to their favored candidates and super PACs. It’s true that campaign finance reform is often a back water issue, except when the water boils and the reformers have their day. That day may be coming; let’s hope it arrives before the next scandal.