The incumbent protection act

John Stossel

11/2/2005 12:05:00 AM - John Stossel

"I got elected. You may not criticize me."

 OK, the incumbents don't put it that way. They say: "There's too much money in politics! We need campaign finance reform."

 And they get it. "Reform" sounds good. McCain-Feingold and a host of state laws would protect us from the evil influence of big money.

 But that's nonsense. When our behemoth government has the power to spend more than $2 trillion every year, big money will find a way to try to influence it. It's the little guys, who aren't in office, who are silenced by "reform."

 McCain-Feingold makes it illegal for individual to buy an ad that names a candidate within 60 days of an election. "'Reformers' want elections to be the private preserve of the political class," snorted Ed Crane of the Cato Institute. He's right. And they're succeeding. They've gamed the system so nearly every incumbent is reelected.

 Only an unusually well-funded candidate can challenge the establishment.  In 1968, Eugene McCarthy drove Lyndon Johnson from office with the help of funds from rich liberals like Steward Mott. Today, McCarthy's campaign would be illegal.

 Campaign finance reform or, rather, establishment politicians' protection acts, has eliminated such challengers. Various laws prohibit those of us who aren't running for office from buying ads before an election to criticize those who are. The Sierra Club can no longer call a politician a polluter. In Wisconsin, an anti-abortion group could run ads mentioning Sen. Herb Kohl, but not Sen. Russ Feingold, because Feingold was up for election. Too bad -- ads about Feingold and others running for office might actually hold them responsible. A federal judge has ordered the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to regulate the Internet, which FEC chairman Bradley Smith warned might even lead to regulating blogs that link to candidates' websites. "Political activity is more heavily regulated than at any time in our nation's history," Smith told the president in his letter of resignation.

 Outsiders must shut up. The latest scam is playing out now in Washington state.

 To squeeze more money from voters, Washington's legislature passed a 9.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. To their annoyance, Washington law permits another lawmaking process: Citizens can petition to put an initiative on the ballot, which the public can then vote to pass. Some citizens, thinking they were already paying plenty, organized a movement to repeal the tax increase. Two local radio hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson, spent lots of time on the air explaining why they think the gas tax is a bad idea.

 The nerve!

 In response to this challenge to their authority, a group of politicians turned to campaign-finance laws to silence Wilbur and Carlson. The theory is this: Radio airtime is valuable. So if a radio host expresses strong political views, that's a contribution, just as if a caterer were providing free food to the campaign's volunteers. Washington law limits contributions in the final three weeks of a political campaign to $5,000, so Wilbur and Carlson must shut up. Or at least the anti-tax group must count the minutes they talked about it on the air, assign some price to that and report that under campaign finance limits. Or something -- Mike Vaska, the lawyer acting as prosecutor, has suggested that if Wilbur and Carlson distanced themselves enough from the other people on their side, they'd be allowed to speak freely on the radio. Ironically, Vaska just happens to be a member of a big private law firm that stands to make big money off a higher gas tax -- maybe millions in legal fees -- $25,000 per bond backed by the tax. For some reason, Washington legislators seem to think that's OK. No one's telling him to shut up.

  The political class protects its own.

 Spending and speech limits are anti-democratic. Gene McCarthy said it well when he pointed out that the Founders pledged their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" to win the Revolution. They didn't say, "lives and fortunes up to $1,000."

 We need more money, not less, spent on politics. What's spent on campaigns now is less than is spent advertising potato chips. Let the outsiders speak.

 The politicians should not tell the people to shut up.