Real election reform

Posted: Apr 14, 2006 8:05 PM
The French surrendered this week.

In an attempt to boost employment, France had passed a law that would make it easier for employers to fire a worker during his first two years on the job. Right now under France’s closed economic system it’s virtually impossible for a French firm to let an employee go once it’s hired him. Meanwhile, in the relatively open market of the United States, employers and employees enjoy great freedom of movement. That’s one reason France creates so few jobs and the U.S. creates so many.

But French students were incensed at the prospect of having to actually work to keep their jobs. They held a series of rallies to protest the reform measure and President Jacques Chirac backed down. Clearly, these students are willing to do anything, even hurt their country’s long-term prospects, to keep their jobs.

The question is, how are French “youths” different from your average Congressman? On Capitol Hill, job preservation is also Job One. Which explains why lawmakers love to pass campaign finance measures that make it ever more difficult for their opponents.

Challengers already face an uphill battle to join the club. “It’s so much easier to re-elect an incumbent, almost any incumbent, with the exception of those entrenched in scandal,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, recently told FOX News. “But you would be surprised even how many of those get re-elected, too.”

Incumbents have the power of the purse -- they can spend federal money in their district to convince voters they’re effective. But they also have the power to make laws, which they use to hamper anyone running against them.

The most recent example is a campaign finance measure, passed in the House of Representatives, aimed at limiting the amount of “soft money” nonprofit committees known as 527 groups may take in. Of course, 527s didn’t even exist until the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law prevented candidates and national parties from accepting unlimited “soft money” donations. So politicians are now attempting to “fix” a problem they in fact created.

Yet even if this measure passes (it’s expected to die quietly in the Senate) it won’t change anything. George Soros gave $27 million to pro-Democratic groups in the 2004 election cycle; unless he runs out of money he’ll probably give just as much next time. If he can’t give it to the Democratic Party and he can’t give it to a 527, he’ll find another outlet. Money, like water, will always find a crack to squeeze through.

It’s time for real reform -- reform that creates a free market in politics.

Here’s how it would work: Lift all the restrictions on political donations. Allow anyone to give any amount to any candidate, party or pressure group at any time. But insist that all donations be immediately reported on the Internet. Instead of having a Federal Elections Commission trying to micromanage hundreds of campaigns, we’d have millions of bloggers and reporters keeping an eye on who was donating to whom.

In his book “The Cash Nexus,” economic historian Niall Ferguson notes, “The conventional argument is that such a free market in politics would benefit the rich and exclude the poor from political influence.” But as he points out, all voters are “shareholders” in the federal government. A party that serves the overwhelming majority is still going to win more votes than a party that supports the narrow interests of rich donors.

Ferguson warns that political parties are essential in a democracy, yet, “are being denied the funding they need by rules aimed to curb private influence, and at the same time forced into an unhealthy dependence on the state.” A free market would change that equation.

Even in this year of supposed political unrest, when polls show steadily increasing discontent with the ruling party, political analysts say no more than 30 or so of the 435 House seats are really at risk of changing hands.

Our political system is becoming a closed market where turnover is impossible. The French have shown how well that works. Let’s “reform” campaigns by creating a competitive open market, and let the best ideas win out.