Campaign Finance Reform: Silencing the Lambs

Posted: Apr 24, 2001 12:00 AM
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 officials? 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.