Senator Lieberman recently described his decision to take out petitions to appear on the November ballot as an independent if he loses the Democratic primary as “an insurance policy” against opponent Ned Lamont’s capacity to fund his own campaign.
One problem (of many) with this argument is that when Congress wrote the new campaign finance law in 2002, it wrote itself a sweet insurance policy against self-funded challengers: the so-called “millionaire’s provision.” Under this rule, if a candidate spends more than a certain amount of his or her own funds (a complex formula based on the state’s population), the contribution limits for other candidates in the race are doubled, quadrupled, and eventually sextupled.
In practice, in Connecticut, if I’m reading the law correctly, this means that if Lamont were to spend $2.5 million of his own money (which is not that much; Lieberman himself spent $3.7 million on his barely contested reelection in 2000), Lieberman would be able to accept contributions six times the normal $2,000 limit. And presumably he would be able to accept them for the primary and the general election separately: a single lobbyist could contribute $24,000 to Lieberman.
To his credit, Lieberman voted against the millionaire provision, as did most Democrats, and his colleague Senator Dodd offered the strongest speech in opposition. It is surely the worst thing in that law, incumbent protection of the most blatant kind. Yes, it is disturbing that so many Senators and members of Congress are wealthy and financed their own first campaigns. But given the advantage incumbents already have, in name recognition and access to donors - until the rise of small donors and the netroots -- a self-financed candidate has usually been the only challenger who has a chance, and many of them lose. (The world’s expert on self-financed candidates is Jennifer Steen of Boston College.) And only incumbents, not another challenger, are likely to be able to take advantage of these $4,000, $8,000 or $12,000 donors. The millionaire provision doesn’t level the playing field against self-financed candidates, rather, it restores and magnifies the advantage that incumbents already have.
And if Congress has concluded that $2,000 is an appropriate contribution limit, because higher contributions can be corrupting, why is $12,000 not corrupting when your opponent happens to be self-financed?
The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Millionaire Provision when it upheld McCain-Feingold in 2003, because no millionaire candidate with standing to claim he was hurt by the provision had appeared. Now, however, the Democrat challenging Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has filed suit challenging the provision.
So here’s a good question for tonight’s Lieberman-Lamont debate: “Senator Lieberman, since you have decided to run as an independent as an ‘insurance policy’ against Mr. Lamont’s personal wealth, will you promise not to use your other ‘insurance policy,’ the provision that allows you to raise huge amounts of money from private donors and lobbyists?”