Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) came to Oberlin on Wednesday to speak about campaign finance reform, the issue for which he is arguably most well-known.
Feingold began his career as a public servant at the age of 29. He served as a member of the Wisconsin State Senate for 10 years before serving three terms in the United States Senate. He was co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which bans corporations from donating money to a specific candidate in an election. He was also the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act.
In his lecture on campus, Feingold argued against large donations from corporations. He asserted that donations by individuals, rather than organizations, include more people in the political process and can still result in victory. Feingold referenced President Obama’s 2008 election campaign as an example of a success that raised a lot money from a lot of people.
“There were so many people engaged in and excited to be part of the political process, sending in $10 campaign contributions on the Internet, or through the mail,” he said. “I see contributions from college students now. Small, but you never saw that before.”
Feingold also opposed the increasing costs it takes to be a serious contender in an election today. He noted that the emphasis campaigns put on fundraising are time-consuming, which can give incumbent officials less time to dedicate to policymaking.
“I would come into Washington and see senators who looked absolutely beat,” Feingold said. “And they would say, ‘I just had three fundraisers.’ And they would have to present a bill the next morning.”
Feingold also talked about Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization dedicated to “restoring [the United States] government to citizens’ control.” One way the organization seeks to meet its goals is through producing television advertisements and documentaries. This came into conflict with an original provision of the McCain-Feingold Act, which banned issue advocacy ads, or airing broadcast advertisements that named a candidate within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.
In January 2010, however, the Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission dismantled this provision of the McCain-Feingold Act. The provision that banned corporations from donating to a specific candidate remained intact.
Feingold stressed the importance of the Supreme Court in reforming campaign finance. Currently, by a small margin, there are more conservative-leaning than liberal-leaning justices on the Supreme Court. Feingold argued that appointing one more Democrat could overturn the Citizens United vs. FEC decision. Therefore, it was important to elect President Obama to a second term in office.
He concluded his speech by urging Oberlin students to run for public office or to pursue careers in public policy.
College first-year Elliot Sakach said that he is inspired to do so after hearing Feingold speak.
“He’s a pretty inspiring character,” Sakach said. “Politicians are normally viewed as these corrupt and untrustworthy people, but Russ Feingold is clearly an example of someone who has stuck to his principles, his morals and his integrity. He’s stood up for what he believes in, and you don’t see that often.”
“In addition to being both a progressive voice in the Senate during his time there,” added College sophomore and Oberlin College Democrats Co-Chair David Fegley, “[Sen. Feingold] has also truly been an independent voice, which is something that cannot be said about many of our elected representatives. And I think that’s something the Oberlin community really respects.”