The bad joke of campaign-finance reform

Posted: Mar 20, 2001 12:00 AM
While the stock market reels and rocks, the U. S. Senate debates ... campaign finance? The detachment of the Washington political community from ordinary concerns is no new phenomenon, but that detachment seems only to grow worse. Campaign finance? Who, outside the District of Columbia, can stifle the snores that arise at the mere mention of this tedious topic? Well, wait. There is something for which to stay awake. That thing is the possibility that in addressing a topic nobody cares about, Congress will damage our constitutional fabric. It could pass a "reform" that inhibits the freedom of speech on which we all -- liberals, conservatives and centrists -- supposedly pride ourselves. That's why we have to waste time watching the Senate waste its time during the two weeks the celebrated McCain-Feingold bill will be debated and -- let us piously hope -- slashed to death. The bill, which would ban unlimited large donations to the political parties, is rubbish. John McCain is a man of various excellence, but this dippy bill, which for some reason he won't let go of, doesn't exactly magnify them. That's for two reasons. The first is the gauzy and abstract nature of the alleged problem: corruption. You would suppose if soft money were truly corrupting politics, there would be some evidence of the corruption like a trail of blood or smoking pistol. That a lot of money gets spent in modern campaigns isn't proof of corruption. It's proof of, among other readily verifiable things, extravagance and high advertising costs. John McCain and Russell Feingold allege (I suppose on the basis of human nature) that money buys influence. Well, it does. But money is also a form of political speech. Why limit speech by limiting the right not just to cheer good old Sen. Phogbound, but to support his prospects in a pecuniary way? Ah, yes. The rich give more than the poor: the ever-smoldering Bolshevik argument. Those who argue thus aren't saying anything we didn't know -- namely, that rich people have more money to spend on everything from cars to vacation homes, and if you want to stop that kind of iniquity, get the Senate to debate a bill making capitalistic success a hanging offense. The point leads to a larger one. It is that we haven't got a money question here, we've got a power question. P-o-w-e-r. All politics, we come to realize, is about the distribution and deployment of power. The more a government has to offer in the way of advantages, privileges and opportunities, the more clamorous grows the bidding for a piece of that offering. The alleged campaign-finance problem is a function of the power problem in Washington. We have big government, yes? Big government invites big giving. Big givers generally want the government either to impinge on someone else's opportunities and advantages or to extend their own opportunities and advantages. The way to deal with this admittedly substandard state of affairs isn't to hem in financial givers. One way is to make it transparently public who gives what to whom. Better still is the approach now before the Senate, what with House's passage of the president's $1.6-trillion tax cut. Tax-cutting is a many-splendored thing. Less money in the Treasury means less money to clamor for if you happen to be, or to represent, an interest group. Money and power are inseparable commodities in most places, but especially in Washington. Drive a wedge between them, through reducing tax revenues, and who knows what marvelous results might flow therefrom? Observe that many of the senators (largely Democrats) pushing for McCain-Feingold are pushing against large tax cuts. See the pattern? Washington runs the show: It gathers the taxes and tells voters exactly how much they may contribute to the support or replacement of the tax gatherers. If what you see going on here looks weird and wanton, accept my congratulations on your eyesight.