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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

McCain doesn't want a 'risk for our country' -- IN opening the Senate debate on campaign finance reform, Republican John McCain asked his colleagues to "take a risk for our country." But his proposals would stifle, not expand, political debate.

Congress should instead relax election controls, thereby encouraging more rather than less participation in the democratic process. Building on his highly touted, but unsuccessful run for the White House, Sen. McCain has joined Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to propose banning so-called "soft money" contributions to political parties and restrict independent issue advertising close to elections.

A competing proposal from Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., backed in principle by President George W. Bush, would limit soft money while leaving advertising alone. All would increase the contribution limit for candidates.

Advocates of "reform" regularly assert that there is too much money in politics and that it is corrupting the process. In fact, Americans spend too little on campaigns. All told, some $4 billion was devoted last year to elections - just $14.30 per person, about the cost of a CD, or two or three meals at McDonald's. Less than $500 million of that, or $1.80 a person, was in soft money. That hardly seems excessive for candidates for president, Congress, governor, state legislature and local government.

Given the importance of these positions, and their impact on the country, Americans are terribly cheap. Why not spend the equivalent of at least two CDs on politics? Of course, any amount of money can be misspent. But there's no evidence that this $4 billion is "corrupting" politics. Real bribery, with campaign cash exchanged for specific positions on legislation, is virtually unheard of. Instead, most money is given to candidates with a record of support for or promises to support a general way of thinking.

Trial attorneys and labor unions tend to back Democrats; small businesses trend Republican. Campaign cash may reinforce a candidate's preexisting views, but such aid rarely determines them. People who give money may enjoy greater access to politicians, but the playing field will never be level. Those representing leading publications, labor unions, trade associations, multinational corporations, civic organizations and political parties will always get a more serious hearing than the average citizen.

Political contributions and expenditures provide a practical tool for anyone who would otherwise have little influence on the political process. Soft money and political ads are particularly important mechanisms to promote a more competitive electoral system. The biggest campaign problem is the dominance of government by a permanent political class. House members enjoy a re-election rate of roughly 98 percent. Senate re-election rates have averaged 90 percent over the last two decades. Congressional staff positions offer equivalent job security. The longer legislators stay in office, the more they vote to spend.

Alliances between career legislators and Washington's permanent institutions of influence - bureaucrats, journalists, lobbyists - create an "iron triangle" that pushes government spending ever upward and regulations ever outward. Solutions are hard to come by. Eliminating the advantages of incumbency are one, but politicians would sooner commit ritual suicide. Term limits are another, but Republicans and Democrats alike resist this step to the death. Ensuring that challengers have an opportunity to raise sufficient campaign funds is another.

While PACs typically back incumbents of both parties to preserve their access, my Cato Institute colleague John Samples points out that parties, in contrast, "concentrate equally on vulnerable incumbents and credible challengers." Issue ads, which criticize positions taken by candidates or their parties, generally aid challengers since incumbents have greater media access.

In any case, tinkering with campaign rules only changes the relative balance of power. Notes Samples, "Bans and limits have not suppressed the demand for favors created by the growth of government, but have instead led to substitutes for direct giving to candidates."

Indeed, PACs resulted from stringent limits on individual campaign contributions. McCain-Feingold would magnify the influence of already dominant individuals and groups, such as unions and the media. Moreover, interest groups denied the right to contribute soft money will look for new opportunities to make independent expenditures on behalf of favored candidates.

Beyond the practical electoral impact is the constitutional issue. The quintessential purpose of the First Amendment is to protect political speech, like issue ads. To ban such speech when it most matters, before an election, would reduce the Constitution's most basic protections to a nullity.

Individuals and groups naturally spend generously to influence government, because government dramatically influences their interests. The most effective way to reduce what they spend is to reduce the influence of government.

In the meantime, Congress should open the political system, eliminating contribution restrictions other than quick and complete public disclosure. McCain-Feingold is a sheep in wolf's garb, a measure that would protect the incumbent political class rather than the public.

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


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

© 2000, Copley News Service