McCainism: reckless accusations

George Will
Posted: Mar 21, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--McCainism, the McCarthyism of today's ``progressives,'' involves, as McCarthyism did, the reckless hurling of imprecise accusations. Then the accusation was ``communism!'' Today it is ``corruption!'' Pandemic corruption of ``everybody'' by ``the system'' supposedly justifies campaign finance reforms. Those reforms would subject the rights of political speech and association to yet further government limits and supervision, by restricting the political contributions and expenditures that are indispensable for communication in modern society. The media, exempt from regulations they advocate for rival sources of influence, are mostly John McCain's megaphones. But consider how empirically unproved and theoretically dubious are his charges of corruption. What McCain and kindred spirits call corruption, or the ``appearance'' thereof, does not involve personal enrichment. Rather, it means responding to, or seeming to respond to, contributors, who also often are constituents. However, those crying ``corruption!'' must show that legislative outcomes were changed by contributions--that because of contributions, legislators voted differently than they otherwise would have done. Abundant scholarship proves that this is difficult to demonstrate, and that almost all legislative behavior is explainable by the legislators' ideologies, party affiliations or constituents' desires. So reformers hurling charges of corruption often retreat to the charge that the ``real'' corruption is invisible--a speech not given, a priority not adopted. That charge is impossible to refute by disproving a negative. Consider some corruption innuendos examined by Bradley Smith, a member of the Federal Election Commission, in his new book ``Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform.'' In April 1999, Common Cause, McCain's strongest collaborator, made much of the fact that from 1989 through 1998 the National Rifle Association had contributed $8.4 million to congressional campaigns. However, that was (BEG ITAL)just two-tenths of 1 percent
of total spending ($4 billion) by congressional candidates during that period. How plausible is it that NRA contributions--as distinct from the votes of 3 million NRA members--influenced legislators? Common Cause made much of the fact that in the 10 years ending in November 1996, broadcasting interests gave $9 million in hard dollars to federal and state candidates and in soft dollars to parties. Gosh. Five election cycles. Changing issues and candidates. Rival interests within the industry (e.g., Time Warner vs. Turner). And broadcasters' contributions were only (BEG ITAL)one-tenth of 1 percent of the $9 billion spent by parties and candidates during that period. Yet as Smith says, Common Cause implies that this minuscule portion of political money caused legislative majorities to vote for bills they otherwise would have opposed, or to oppose bills they otherwise would have supported, each time opposing the wishes of the constituents that the legislators must face again. As Smith says, to prove corruption one must prove that legislators are acting against their principles, or against their best judgment, or against their constituents' wishes. Furthermore, claims of corruption seem to presuppose that legislators should act on some notion of the ``public good' unrelated to the views of any particular group of voters. Although reformers say there is ``too much money in politics,'' if they really want to dilute the possible influence of particular interests (the NRA, broadcasters, whatever), they should favor (BEG ITAL)increasing
the size of the total pool of political money, so that any interest's portion of the pool will be small. And if reformers really want to see the appearance of corruption, they should examine what their reforms have done, have tried to do, and have not tried to do. Smith notes that incumbent re-election rates began to rise soon after incumbents legislated the 1974 limits on contributions, which hurt challengers more than well-known incumbents with established financing networks. After 1974, incumbents' fund-raising advantages over challengers rose from approximately 1.5 to 1, to more than 4 to 1. Early 1997 versions of the McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan reform bills would have set spending ceilings--surprise!--just where challengers become menacing to incumbents. Shays-Meehan set $600,000 for House races. Forty percent of challengers who had spent more than that in the previous cycle, won; only 3 percent who spent less, won. In 1994, 1996 and 1998, (BEG ITAL)all Senate challengers lost who spent less than the limits proposed in the 1995 and 1997 versions of McCain-Feingold. There are interesting limits to McCain's enthusiasm for limits. His bill does (BEG ITAL)not
include something President Bush proposes--a ban on lobbyists making contributions to legislators while the legislature is in session. Such a limit would abridge the freedom of incumbents. Campaign finance reform is about abridging the freedom of everyone but incumbents--and their media megaphones.