Recently the U.S. Senate labored like an elephant on campaign finance
reform and gave birth to a McCain-Feingold mouse. The problem is, that mouse
may yet roar if the U.S. House of Representatives passes something close to
it later this year and the president signs it into law.
I applaud attempts to improve public policy and the way we do business in
politics, especially if it has to do with increasing the transparency of the
political system. Even so, it's hard to understand why so much fuss is made
over a billion or so dollars in campaign contributions - less than a tenth
of 1 percent of the federal government's annual budget - that is given
freely in the open for everyone to see. The contention that all campaign
contributions freely given by American citizens are "corrupting" is a
sweeping and inaccurate generalization.
I do, however, understand what the fuss is over the McCain-Feingold
"solution" to the made-up "problem" of "too much" money in politics: It's
unconstitutional, counterproductive and destined to give special interests
even more political clout at the expense of individuals. It will weaken the
two political parties. It will make it even more difficult for political
challengers to beat incumbents. Remember whose interests are really being
served the next time you hear a moralizing politician proclaim that he seeks
these limits on free speech in the interest of the public.
We have given government such extensive powers to tax, spend, regulate
and take property that the political class can literally threaten the
survival of every citizen, family and private enterprise in our society.
With stakes this high, you can be sure that individuals and private
enterprises will be heard, regardless of legislative efforts to gag them.
The source of the campaign finance "problem" stems from the imposition of
a $1,000 limit on individual contributions that was established in 1974 in
the aftermath of Watergate. The limit was ridiculous then and is now
absolutely ludicrous since it has never been increased or even indexed for
inflation. As a result, the maximum campaign contribution from an individual
today buys less than one-third of what it did back then, and campaigns
increasingly are financed by special interests that have a plethora of
"legal" means to contribute money to candidates.
The reform we should aim for is transparency in campaign giving, which
can be accomplished by eliminating corporate and union political action
committees, then raising the cap on individual campaign contributions and
requiring that they be published immediately. Mass communications via the
Internet, television, satellite and wireless devices can ensure that our
political system remains democratic and egalitarian while citizens are given
a fighting chance to hold the political class accountable. A vigilant press
and long-standing laws against offenses like bribery and influence peddling
are our best offense in keeping politics clean and honest.
It would be dangerous and undemocratic to restrict candidates' access to
any of these means of getting their message across. Restrictions on people's
right to give money to candidates translate directly and unavoidably into
restrictions on people's democratic rights. And when you do that, you're
asking for trouble.
If government pulls the plug on the PA system in the public square by
limiting individuals' right to make campaign contributions, people will go
underground to have their voices heard in independently financed issue ads.
Then, if government shreds the Constitution and tries to shut down the
underground press - what the Soviets used to call the samizdat - by
outlawing issue ads designed to influence an election, as McCain-Feingold
also does, people will resort to other "illegal" means to have their voices
heard. When free speech is outlawed, only outlaws will be free to speak.
If government shuts people out of political campaigns and makes it
impossible for them to influence who is elected to office, people will seek
redress of their grievances by spending even more money on lobbying
politicians after the campaign is over. A more ripe condition for graft and
corruption I cannot imagine. What will Congress do then to silence the
lambs? Outlaw any communications between the people and their elected
The worst aspect of the Senate-passed campaign finance bill is its
ringing endorsement of the principle of protecting incumbents. The bill
allows exemptions for incumbents faced with a well-heeled challenger and
forces the news media to offer air time at a discount, i.e., it fixes the
prices of and rations political advertising on television. Incumbents - most
of them extraordinarily talented, honorable men and women - already have
near-insuperable advantages in terms of access to the media, name
recognition and ability to attract donors. In 2000, 392 of 399 House
incumbents (98 percent) were re-elected.
The McCain-Feingold "mouse" could perpetuate a system whereby new voices
would have a hard time ever being heard. The fact is, we should be lowering barriers to political entry for outsiders, not raising them.