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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002 / 15 Adar, 5762

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Washington-style campaign reform: incumbent protection -- ONLY in Washington could a measure designed to gut First Amendment freedoms and entrench incumbents be declared to be "reform." Only in Washington could such "reform" advance with so much sanctimonious support from media and self-anointed public interest elites.

The American electoral process is a mess. Many Americans are apathetic. When they vote, they often are stuck using antiquated voting equipment of the sort that helped spark the endless presidential recount of 2000. Even when Americans' votes are counted accurately, their alleged representatives seem more responsive to special interests than the public.

It's not a pretty sight. The cause is not too much money in politics, however. It is too little campaign cash.

In 2000, politicians at all levels spent about $4 billion. That's a little over $14 per person, enough for one CD or a couple of meals at McDonalds. Is that really too much to devote to choosing all elected officials, from the city council to the presidency?

That isn't much money, given the issues at stake. And it isn't much money, given the benefits of incumbency.

Politicians deploy enormous advantages to stay in office. Gerrymandered districts, extensive name-recognition, government perquisites and ombudsman services make incumbents exceedingly difficult to beat. Re-election rates for both the House and Senate usually exceed 90 percent; out of 435 congressional seats, fewer than 10 percent are likely to be even competitive this year.

One of the few equalizers is money. It not only helps challengers run credible campaigns against incumbents. It helps average Americans, who can donate cash if nothing else, participate in a political process otherwise dominated by organized interest groups and skilled elites.

Particularly important is the role of independent issue ads. They are an important antidote to political sclerosis because they are usually directed against incumbents. Which is why a majority of congressmen enthusiastically voted to ban them -- while simultaneously refusing to approve a statement that no provision of the "reform" bill could violate the First Amendment. (At the same time, the pending Senate legislation would mandate discounts for candidate ads.)

We've been down this reform road before. The Nixon campaign scandals led to the "reforms" of 1974, which ended big individual contributions. This measure begat political action committees, "soft money" for parties, and independent ads.

Since then more than a dozen states and Canada have restricted campaign fund-raising and spending. The uniform result is less electoral competition and increased re-election rates.

The newly passed House bill would reinforce these trends. It would shift the emphasis back to direct fund-raising by candidates -- particularly incumbents. And to soft money contributions to state parties.

The legislation would encourage labor unions to spend their money on in-kind aid and corporations to funnel their cash through non-party advocacy groups. It would encourage the latter organizations to emphasize phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives before elections. It would encourage the wealthy to run their own advertisements.

Perhaps the strongest advocates of "reform" are those on the left who believe that cutting out the public will encourage approval of their high-tax, high-spending, high-regulation agenda. For instance, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) claims that campaign money today comes from people "whose interests are often at odds with those of average Americans."

Democratic politico Donna Brazile contends that election contributions prevent socialization of American health care. Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blame campaign donations for preventing passage of all manner of good laws, including "new tools to combat hate crimes." Apparently they believe racists to be big givers.

In fact, the limits of the power of even the most well-heeled company is demonstrated by Enron. Nearly $6 million in soft money to both parties bought it virtually nothing.

Enron got no further in lobbying for help in protecting its credit rating than would have an average person calling on President Bush to stop his mortgage from going into default.

More important, it is the interest of America's well-insulated governing elite that is often at variance with the interests of the public. And it is campaign contributions that allow average Americans to have a fighting chance in protecting their interests against everyone from multiterm incumbents to newspaper editors.

With campaign "reform" bandwagon rolling toward passage, Americans must depend on a blocking 41 Senators to filibuster the bill, despite an almost certain tidal wave of sanctimonious obloquy. Failing that, the last barrier is a willingness by President Bush to use some of his vaunted political capital to do what is right rather than what might seem momentarily popular. America's political system is broke, but the problem is too little money. Shifting control of the process ever more to elites is no solution.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


02/20/02: The grand Enron morality play
02/12/02: Rebuilding what?
02/05/02: Succumbing to the terrorist temptation
01/29/02: Democrats for what?
01/22/02: The Iraqi question
01/14/02: Profiling frequent flyers
01/08/02: Trade, not aid
01/02/02: Treason by any other name
12/26/01: Preserving freedom in an unfree world
12/17/01: Dealing with terrorism's aftermath
12/10/01: Emerging friendships?
12/04/01: Uncle Sam: Insurer of last resort
11/28/01: Expanding the circle of trade
11/20/01: Free to be stupid
11/13/01: The meaning of compassion
11/07/01: Patriotic scoundrels
10/30/01: The coming postal raid
10/16/01: First, do no harm
10/12/01: Good news from a suffering land
10/04/01: Defending whom?
09/25/01: The wrong solution to the wrong problem
09/21/01: The price of terrorism
08/28/01: Uncle Sam's retirement scam
08/21/01: Canberra's quaint naivete
08/14/01: Uncle Sam's false fuel economy
08/08/01: The Clinton administration in drag
07/31/01: The high cost of government
07/24/01: Kill the campaign reform illusion
07/17/01: Do as I say, not as I do
07/11/01: Lawyers at play
07/05/01: Western blundering, Macedonian disaster
06/26/01: How best to honor Bill Clinton?
06/19/01: A maturing Europe?
06/15/01: Tell Beijing to mind its own business
06/06/01: Ukraine's boiling cauldron
05/31/01: Protecting privacy from Uncle Sam
05/22/01: America's Balkan quagmire
05/09/01: The Taiwanese flash point
05/01/01: Globalization serves the world's poor
04/24/01: Who's cheating whom?
04/10/01: The NCAA scam
04/03/01: Balkan stupidities
03/27/01: McCain doesn't want a 'risk for our country'
03/20/01: Dubious Korean alliances
03/06/01: Coercive patriotism
02/27/01: Bombing without end
02/20/01: A dose of misplaced outrage
02/13/01: Psst: Tax cuts for taxpayers. Pass-it-on
02/06/01: Bridging the unbridgeable gap
01/23/01: Left-wing demagoguery
01/16/01: The drug war problem
01/10/01: Politics and trade
01/03/01: Hope for liberty?
12/27/00: The debris of war
12/19/00: What's the rule of law for?
12/15/00: Ending silicone breast implant saga
12/05/00: Election may yield victor, but there are no winners
11/21/00: A Bush presidential mandate?
11/07/00: Exprienced Gore? Yeah, right
11/01/00: Interventionist follies
10/17/00: America's brightening prospects in Ukraine
10/11/00: GOP budget scandals
10/03/00: How a pharmaceutical 'crisis' was created
09/27/00: Clinton's empathy has helped nobody
09/13/00: AlGore's risky budget policies
09/05/00: Military readiness and Korean commitments
08/29/00: Let sleeping hypocrites lie
08/21/00: Targeting a journalistic pariah
08/15/00: European garrison for Kosovo?
08/08/00: Journalistic cleansing at the Boston Globe
08/04/00: Junk science on trial
06/22/00: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
06/15/00: The end of U.N. peacekeeping
06/07/00: The Clinton regulatory miasma
06/01/00: Administration stupidity, congressional cowardice
05/25/00: The silence of the international community
05/18/00: Protecting the next generation

05/11/00: Freer trade with China will advance human rights

05/04/00: How not to save the Constitution

04/28/00: American tripwire in Korea long ago disappeared: Why are we still involved?

04/18/00: Clinton administration believes the IRS is too gentle, wants more auditors

© 2002, Copley News Service