December 15, 2000


It's Time to Junk Law That Equates Political Spending With Free Speech

by Jennifer Rockne

The new Congress will include a record number of women — yet they still hold only 13 percent of House seats and 25 percent of Senate seats.

With all the progress women have made to dispel social stigma and sex discrimination, why is their representation in Congress so minimal?

The greatest single factor in getting and keeping a Congressional seat is money. And so long as we accept the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which holds spending money is a kind of free speech, women — the majority of Americans — will be underrepresented.

In that case, the court stated that political campaign spending could not be regulated, and contributions could be limited only in certain narrow ways. This effectively legitimized the practice of corporations and political action committees funding the politicians, parties and campaigns of their choosing — and reaping legislative favors.

Incumbents raise funds more readily than challengers simply because they are in office, and House members typically start fundraising for re-election immediately after they are elected. Most senators easily spend the equivalent of two years of their six-year terms fundraising, according to Washington insider and former Cabinet member Joseph Califano.

Historically, when there is an open Congressional seat, women have fared as well as men, but incumbents tend to win — only six sitting representatives were defeated in this year's election. Of the 33 women major party candidates challenging male House incumbents, two were deemed winners.

The problem is not funding — women candidates raise campaign money on a par with men and have done so since the 1980s, in part due to contributions from PACs and donor networks. The problem is that incumbents can raise at least twice as much as challengers, allowing them greater media access and other exposure to the public.

Despite their woefully disproportionate representation in the Congress, women have played a vital role with respect to issues such as sex discrimination, which entered the law books because those who had experienced it firsthand championed them.

Title IX, which denies federal funds to schools that discriminate based on sex, might not exist today if a woman in Congress hadn't saved it from near-defeat. Women made federal law on equal pay and funding of daycare for poor women. Historically, women in Congress raise issues of health, poverty, family, and social concerns that often are dwarfed by military or foreign policy issues.

If money is used to rig the game, obviously removing its importance would level the board to increase representation for the underrepresented.

The Supreme Court tends to react to popular movements and the social climate — as it did in response to civil unrest during the Civil Rights Era — rather than lead the way. Our elected and appointed government officials will not make the changes needed to enable a government worthy of the name democracy, but an organized public will.

Whether our goal is achieving equal representation for all Americans, or simply a less corrupt government, reversing Buckley v. Valeo and dispelling the money-equals-speech dogma must be part of the foundation of change. Doing so may not ensure fairer representation, but it would help return politics to the people, and open the field to a greater diversity of players, so that we might have a Congress that looks more like the constituency it purportedly represents.

Jennifer Rockne is the assistant director of

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