Happy Birthday to DFE!

It was six years ago today that, in a combination of political frustration and professional angst, the DragonFlyEye.Net domain which had previously been used for an “About Me” type of webpage gave way to the new, PHP  and politics driven version. Its hard to remember what it looked like back then, but fortunately, the Internet Archives have a version which as I recall is pretty darned close to the original. It’s dated April 20th, 2005. I’d hoped to revive the old site for a day, but this has been a busy holiday weekend and frankly, my code back then was so completely different than what I do now that I barely understand it.

So, instead of bringing you the entire site as it was constructed back then, I bring you the oldest article from the archives that I could find – the one from which the official birthdate is now extracted. Remember the lovely McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill? The one that did precious little and in any event was recently overturned by the SCOTUS? Well, as it happens, that’s the subject of that long-ago post. A little rough around the edges – well, a lot rough around the edges. A little embarrassing, to be blunt. But history is what it is, and here’s what it is:

Campaign Finance Reform: A Supply-Side Proposal.

The 2004 election proved a dismal failure of the McCain/Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill, as the so-called 527 organizations skirted the line of what the bill regarded as “finance.”  Thus the effectiveness of an attempt to moderate the out-of-control money situation in Washington was dramatically undercut.  From the Swift Boat Veterans for Slander to MoveOn.Org, not only was the money machine not throttled down, the political pitch reached an all-time record-setting screech.

Neither should we be surprised to find that if there is a will, those who would seek to affect the outcome of the election can find a way.  Many of the 527s were in fact privately funded; much of that funding came from well-meaning people who are not necessarily those who’s overwhelming monetary influence the bill had hoped to limit.  Nevertheless, their influence introduced a new gap through which the abuse of power will inevitably slip, this time well outside of the scope of legislation.  Once again, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

This overwhelming demand for electoral influence has resulted in the predictable quadrupling of the cost of political ads, and squeezed all but the wealthiest of candidates with the greatest canopy of investors from the competition.  Worse, the 527s are not contributing to the campaign directly, and are not bound to any measure of truth or accuracy because their ads simply expound on the supposed opinions of detached organizations.

The trouble is: there is no fair way to exclude or cap donations without infringing upon a person’s ability to demonstrably speak their minds.  While it may not be the civic duty of private citizens that this legislation seeks to restrain, incorporations and unions are granted the same rights and freedoms as those of an individual, and thus any such legislation must be universal.  Unfortunately, we inevitably incur the wrath of those who believe we are treading on their First Amendment right to free speech, as indeed we are.

How do we progress from here?  If the McCain/Feingold legislation doesn’t do the trick, how do we reform the campaign process?  Is there any method of controlling the money without also controlling free speech?

Perhaps the problem with the reform efforts to-date is that they focus on the demand side of the coin in what is as much an economic problem as it is a political one.  In seeking to curb the undue influence of the wealthy and connected, we have focused on the money exclusively.  If we focused on the supply side, we might perhaps find a more constitutionally amenable alternative.

There are a few specific things that campaign contributions seek to provide access to: television, print media and radio advertising.  Where these things are concerned, we have an outstanding vehicle for reform that has been in place for some time: the Federal Communication Commission.  No additional laws need to be passed, no mandates outside the scope of the commission, simply the will to exercise its power to benefit the voting public.

If the on-air radio and television stations were required to provide a percentage of their advertising time to political opinion, at a price negotiated by the FCC rather than the market price, we could alter the supply-side of the equation.  Rather than constricting the right of free speech through ever more stringent spending limits, the First Amendment would be championed by a move toward fair pricing and access for all interested parties.  Any advertisement that specifically endorses or criticizes a candidate, bill, referendum or party would need to adhere to the full disclosure policy set by McCain/Feingold, and petition for this block of time.

This leaves cable, Internet and satellite mediums.  The FCC has never regulated these mediums, as they represent per-fee voluntary choices in programming.  If the broadcast mediums offer a relative retreat from the inundation of political advertisement however, it would behoove cable and satellite stations to curb their diet of these ads to maintain their viewership and revenue.  Internet web pages are entirely driven by voluntary viewing, and as such require no reforms of this type.

In this way, the crushing need for finances would be abated, the overload of political advertisement could be curbed, and the playing field leveled to allow a more democratic rather than plutocratic process.

Considering the 1.5 billion dollars invested in the 2004 Presidential campaign advertisements, it is increasingly difficult to justify the notion long held as a starry-eyed picture of American Democracy: that anyone can grow up to be President.  Quite to the contrary, our current political climate is one that recalls history lessons of Tammany Hall.  If we would steer our ship towards a sunnier shore, we need to look at reforming the political system in a more comprehensive way.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.