Campaign finance reform fallacies

Posted: Apr 04, 2001 12:00 AM
The entire premise of the current crusade to "reform" campaign finance laws is flawed in several important respects. There are also plenty of other problems with the proposed cure, McCain-Feingold, beyond its flagrant unconstitutionality. The premise underlying the mania to restrict campaign fundraising and spending is that the political process is corrupt and that imperfections in existing law are the primary source of the corruption. But what evidence do the "reformers" offer to support their charges of corruption connected with campaign contributions? Despite being challenged on numerous occasions to substantiate his claims of rampant corruption relative to campaign-funding practices, McCain has never been able to produce any specifics. Instead he resorts to generalities and emotionally charged indictments of every congressman. It is impossible to prove a negative, so when McCain says that all politicians are corrupt because of loopholes in current laws he cannot be proven wrong. By making such sweeping allegations McCain shifts the debate from one based on reason to one grounded in emotion. The result is that facts take a backseat to preconceived notions. In the first place, contrary to popular opinion, not every congressman is corrupt, nor is every campaign contributor. But much of the electorate is certainly willing to believe they are, especially when one with inside knowledge, such as Senator McCain, says so. Unless McCain can come forward with some concrete proof, he ought to speak only for himself and perhaps, contributors to
his campaigns. If he wants to call himself (and his contributors) corrupt, that's his business. McCain and the reformers generalize that politicians base their policy votes not on principle rooted in ideology, nor on their constituents' preferences, but on the dictates of their major contributors. More and more empirical data is emerging to suggest that this simply isn't the case. It is true that contributors donate to candidates who share their ideology, but not that there is any causal connection between the contributions and the politicians' votes. I have contributed my share to various political campaigns, but I have never asked for something in return, and I don't suspect many of you have either. By dealing in generalities, the reformers are able to capitalize on public misconceptions, such as that the Clinton-Gore campaign finance scandals were caused by loopholes in the campaign finance laws. The Clinton-Gore campaign finance abuses have served as valuable ammunition for the reformers, just like Watergate led to campaign funding restrictions in the seventies. But legal loopholes had nothing to do with the Clinton-Gore campaign finance crimes. The unambiguous law -- the clearly controlling legal authority -- is that campaign contributions from foreign nationals are illegal. Clinton and Gore knew that and deliberately violated those laws. That's why they had to return millions of dollars of illegally acquired funds. Clinton and Gore also knew that under the existing law soft money was not to be commingled with hard money, but that didn't keep them from doing it. The fact that they were never brought to justice is not because the laws were vague, but mainly because Janet Reno's Justice Department refused to enforce existing laws against her superiors (by recommending the appointment of an Independent Counsel to investigate the matter, as urged by four separate officials working under her.) I don't think McCain and his fellow "reformers" want to deal with specifics because to do so would rob them of the most effective weapons in their crusade: public confusion and emotion. If the public understood that the current law already prohibited the Clinton-Gore excesses it would not be snookered into believing that yet more laws would prevent crimes of this type in the future. By relegating the debate to an emotional level, facts are not the only casualty. Prudence is abandoned as well. The "reform" movement has been overtaken by an irrational zeal and artificial urgency. Far more pressing problems are being ignored or deferred. This emotionalism also lends itself to an unrealistic expectation that the legislative remedy will be a panacea. In fact, it will most likely generate more problems than it solves, such as making the media even more powerful and restricting the very type of speech the framers were most anxious to protect. Based on fraudulent premises, McCain-Feingold is an old-fashioned copout. To the extent that corruption exists, it is the fault of people, not inadequacies in the law. I hoped with the passing of the Clinton-Gore era we would begin to graduate from such adolescent dodges. It's still not too late.