The great American conversation over campaign finance reform has gone a bit stale since the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act went into effect in 2002. That revolutionary reform plan, devised by Sen. John McCain(R-AZ) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), pretty much changed how politics was done during the 2004 elections, stimulating a surge in the creation of Political Action Committees and other “officially non-partisan organizations” like MoveOn.org and American Coming Together.
To find the next wave of “progressive” campaign finance reform, one must instead look to the Internet, to the world of politically-themed blogs. This electronic landscape is where the next great battle over how much money can really flow in and out of our candidates’ pockets will be fought.
Late last month, the bipartisan Federal Election Commission, led by two of its Republican commissioners, announced it was considering reviewing and possibly restricting the activities of a slew of online activities, including but not limited to online PAC headquarters and political blogs that openly endorse and raise funds for specific candidates or parties. A recent Washington Post article quotes a Republican member of the FEC as saying, “We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated, to where it is going to be regulated in some part.”
That carefully worded description of the FEC’s consideration cannot be mentioned without also noting that since losing pretty handedly in 2002’s midterm elections, something the opposition party hasn’t done in quite a while, the truly Democratic have taken to the Internet in record numbers.
The financial successes that progressively-minded PACs have encountered, specifically MoveOn PAC, which raised $3.5 million in the 2002 election alone for Democratic candidates, is revolutionary. The rise of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been attributed to his ability to raise campaign funds through small individual contributions on the Internet. (Ironically, his fall had a lot to do with the Internet-led spread of Dean’s now infamous “Yeaagh!” video.)
It makes sense for the opposition party, in this case the Democrats, to use the newly-focused Internet medium to find creative new ways to raise money and spread pro-Democratic news items across the Web.
Sadly, the FEC now seems to be entertaining the notion that the historically unregulated Internet landscape needs some fences and some boundaries when it comes to campaign finances, since that’s within their jurisdiction and these online-centered PACs do make quite a bit of money in cyberspace. The FEC will reportedly examine the legality of bloggers and online campaign advertisements, and how both factions co-mingle in the age of Dean.
But that same Washington Post article asks important questions, the most pressing of which have to do with panicked bloggers who feel their support of political candidates will be stifled because the FEC feels their endorsement is an illegal campaign contribution. Where will the line be drawn if the FEC decides to draw it? Will campaign staffers be allowed to write blogs that support their candidate, even if they are being paid for their work? And what about politicians like Rep. Ray Cox (R-MN), who actually has a blog of his own, promoting his own very specific agenda?
If one ignores the fact that the FEC commissioners proposing this consideration have gone and done the dumbest thing politicians can do — stir up the political blog community — there’s something really substantial at stake, and that’s the options available to those individuals not currently in power.
Contrary to what most individuals with an interest in journalism say, it’s very clear to me that blogs and the muckraking-based online revolution is one of the best things to happen to journalism since Bob Woodward had a conversation with a “guy