Of envy and campaign finance reform

Posted: Feb 12, 2002 12:00 AM
The fun of the campaign finance debate, if you call it fun, or for that matter, a real debate, is in listening to our lawmakers purify politics. We're hearing it all again, thanks to Enron. The House Wednesday decides whether to join the Senate in shaking a censorious finger at Americans who want to influence the political process through the donation of "soft," unrestricted money to the political parties. The corruptive influence of money in politics is the recurring theme in the, ah, debate. A donation of money is presented as the moral equivalent of a bribe. Which it isn't in any rational sense, because, first, soft money donations are publicly reported, hence subject to indignant newspaper and oratorical commentary; and, second, they represent a form of constitutionally protected speech. The reasons for trying to curb constitutionally protected speech have never been other than glaringly fake; but, then, the glaringly fake (e.g., Limiting Donations Will Save American Democracy) always plays well on Capitol Hill. Thus, the debate proceeds, with much huffing and puffing and demolition of straw houses. The bill before the House is so fake that, like the last campaign finance "reform" law, in 1974, it omits mention of labor unions and their get-out-the-vote activities, nearly always conducted in behalf of Democrats. Republicans have no such tightly disciplined structures at their service, not even the chambers of commerce. What they have mainly is a range of citizens, including some of the demonstrably wealthy variety, making appreciable political donations out of the pay or profits that a strong free-market economy has vouchsafed them. Republicans, with their slim edge in the House, could kill the bill, but liberal commentators and do-gooders -- who for some reason have a terrifying effect on Republicans -- always coax a few of them to vote against their own interest and in favor of Democratic interests. Given all the printer's ink now publicizing Enron's contributions to Republicans (and -- shhhhh -- Democrats) the vote is widely billed as a no-brainer. Who, please, could not vote against Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow? Should the House pass a bill compatible with the Senate's, it would be up to President Bush to sign or veto. The two Democratic Tomcats -- Daschle and Gephardt -- would advertise a veto as subservient to the principle that "the wealthiest 1 percent" should run America. But say Bush signs such a bill. Does that write finis to the whole matter of who influences our politics, and in what degree? Ah, if only! Why don't we finally acknowledge what goes on here? Campaign finance can't well be isolated from the other hostilities between America's "haves" (who rarely call themselves that) and those who are seen by their political spokesmen as have-nots (nevermind how much more they have than their parents and especially grandparents ever dreamed of acquiring). Envy may be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but it plays big in American politics. Opposition to tax cutting is founded on envy: someone might get bigger cuts than someone else. So with proposals to let Americans invest some of their Social Security "contributions" in the market: Joe Blow might invest more wisely and earn more than poor Alfred E. Neuman. Underlying the campaign finance debate is the envious presumption that, nevermind what sums of money you have at stake in the political game, your freedom to shout your needs is no greater than anyone else's. A particular point about campaign finance is worth making again and again. It is that moneyed people aren't the problem when it comes to campaign finance. The problem is a federal government with seemingly unlimited power to dispense favors. The more the government undertakes to do for us, the more it tempts those with special needs or desires. You get your needs noticed -- how? By giving money, of course. But that's political philosophy, which, as I say, isn't what this debate is about. We should prepare ourselves this week to hear the language of envy spoken with more vigor than at any time since, oh, the tax-cut debate.