George Will

Incessant allegations about the ``appearance'' of corruption are self-validating -- they create a public impression of corruption. Such allegations enable the reform movement to keep raising money and raising doubts about the sufficiency of government regulations, however numerous, of speech about government. Hence reformers have a powerful incentive to argue two propositions.

One is that corruption is so pervasive and subtle it is invisible. They resemble the zealots who say proof of the vast sophistication of the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy is the fact that no proof has been found.

Alternatively, reformers argue that corruption is entirely visible everywhere: It is called politics. If politician A votes in a way pleasing to contributor B -- particularly if B enjoyed ``access'' to A -- that shall be designated corruption. Never mind abundant research demonstrating that money usually moves toward politicians of particular behavior, rather than changing behavior.

Although many reformers say ``corruption'' is secret, hence they cannot be expected to document it, some serious corruption is hardly hidden. It is in the legislative history of McCain-Feingold. Bob Bauer, a Democratic campaign lawyer, notes that the law, although marketed as a measure for clean government, was an opportunity for incumbents' self-aggrandizement. They exploited the opportunity, enacting special protections against wealthy opponents, and ``blackouts'' on much pre-election advertising. These they justified as enabling them to control the content of political discourse in election seasons, and enabling them, as Bauer says, to ``avoid the indignity of `negative' ads directed against them.''

The ``appearance of corruption'' rationale, by which incumbents justify writing laws for their convenience, is threadbare. So reformers increasingly argue (see their justifications for restricting citizens' ``527'' groups) that regulating the timing, amount and content of political advocacy is necessary to improve the tone of politics. So that is what Madison meant: ``Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech -- unless incumbents think abridgements will elevate speech about themselves.''

Reformers say that government regulation of campaign giving and spending will not only spare our leaders the distraction of the governed seeking ``undue'' influence on government, it also will make us think better of government. But a jaundiced view of government is often sensible, and certainly it is justified by campaign regulation, which has become a particularly virulent form of the disease it purports to cure.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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