Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2002 / 3 Adar, 5762
John H. Fund
Opponents and supporters alike will make sure both the large and the fine print do their electoral challengers no favors. "Asking elected officials to make their own elections more competitive is like asking chickens to deliver themselves to Colonel Sanders," says former Colorado state legislator Terry Considine.
Just about everyone agrees that the restrictions on campaign contributions Congress passed in the wake of Watergate have made it tougher for challengers to unseat incumbents. A new study by the Cato Institute suggests the current bill, sponsored by Reps. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D., Mass.) would make it even harder for challengers to unseat a congressman.
Shays-Meehan has two major components, and both would make elections less competitive and free-wheeling. The bill would outlaw "soft money" contributions to national party committees, the only groups that consistently fund challengers in difficult races. Political-action committees, unions and individual givers are far more likely to bet their political chips on an incumbent's re-election rather than make a risky wager on the success of a challenger.
The other major provision would ban any group that's not an official PAC from running "issue advocacy" ads highlighting how a congressman voted within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary. Rep. Roy Blunt is blunt: The bill tells groups and individuals that "you can't run ads and mention a member of Congress, but the members themselves can buy television time at the cheapest possible rate to talk about what a great job they're doing," says the Missouri Republican.
Cato's study, by political scientists Thad Kousser and Ray LaRaja, looked at the impact of similar state-level restrictions now on the books in 24 states. In states with few restrictions (Colorado, Illinois and others) political parties provided candidates with an average of 23% of their total budget. In states with limits on contributions (such as Ohio and Kentucky), parties provided only an average of 15% of a candidates' funds. Further analysis of legislative races in 15 states found that limits on giving to state parties hurt challengers significantly. Incumbents were much more able to make up for any shortfall in party funds through increased contributions from special interests or individual donors. Shays-Meehan threatens to extend this advantage to the national level.
Shays-Meehan is studded with other incumbent-protection devices. Indian tribes would be exempt from the contribution and issue-advocacy bans that apply to other groups. Many tribes are notorious for showering incumbents with contributions in return for loose federal oversight of their efforts to expand gambling. TV stations would be required to sell candidates airtime at the lowest available rates, a provision that would make it much easier for incumbents than for challengers to blanket the airwaves.
Some outside supporters of Shays-Meehan privately concede that the price of getting Congress to pass something called "reform" may be fewer serious challengers for incumbents. But they say it's worth it to eliminate the appearance of corruption that money in politics creates. But those same arguments were used in 1974, when the last great spasm of campaign reform passed Congress. Almost 30 years later, the appearance of corruption is still with us as money has continued to chase power and access in Washington through loopholes never envisioned by the proponents of reform. During the same period, the number of competitive House districts has continued to shrink. Democratic and Republican strategists agree that only some 30 out of 435 House districts will be seriously contested this fall, and most of those will be open seats where an incumbent is retiring.
If Shays-Meehan becomes law, its supporters will tell their constituents they have reduced the influence of
special interests in politics. But what they will really have done is increase their own influence over electoral outcomes. Some citizens may like the idea of "quieter" elections, with fewer outside groups running obnoxious ads, not as much money spent. But they should understand that it will come at a price. In most districts and states, voters won't be given a real choice at the polls. They will merely be ratifying the continued tenure of career politicians for whom the quest for campaign finance reform has become convenient political cover for entrenchment in
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