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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 1999 /28 Tishrei, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Campaign Finance Reform or Free Speech?

Advocates of reform need to remember the law of unintended consequences -- DO YOU BELIEVE that money is the root of all evil? If you are among the comfortable majority that tends to answer in the affirmative, then you probably also think that campaign finance reform is the best thing that can happen to America's electoral system.

In an era when cynicism about public service is universal, it is hard to find anyone who thinks that legislators' votes are not bought and sold by the highest bidders via contributions. Many people believe that if politicians were no longer allowed to solicit campaign contributions, corruption would end.

The chattering classes who make up our news media warmly applaud politicians who plan to further "reform" the already hopelessly complicated campaign finance laws. Yet, the fact that some of the greatest advocates of more campaign finance reform are the worst abusers of the current system (President Clinton and his friends from China come to mind) raises no charge of hypocrisy.

"Stop us, before we sin again," they seem to be saying.

Before the end of the year, Congress will vote on (though probably not pass) the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill which could change our current system by abolishing so-called "soft money" or funds not donated directly to candidates. Other reformers want to go even further and establish a system of public financing for elections that would, in theory, eliminate the need for candidates to raise money at all.

Money is, of course, not the source of evil. It is just an economic commodity. But a majority of Americans think we would do better if it no longer played a significant role in our political system. The question is, if we take that step, are we risking our freedoms?

There is little question that money plays a huge role in elections. In the current races, the amount of funds raised by individual candidates gets more coverage than their stands on the issues.

Indeed, money seems to have determined some electoral outcomes before a single vote has been cast. Case in point: the rush to anoint Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the Republican presidential candidate. Bush has amassed so much money that he will forgo federal matching funds and has intimidated some of his foes into abandoning the race.

Is that fair? Maybe not. But what few observers seem to remember is that many of our current complaints are a direct result of the last great reform of our electoral system: the post-Watergate 1974 federal campaign finance reforms.

The reforms' $1,000 limit on contributions forced candidates to spend more time searching for more people who could give the fairly low maximum contribution. It produced a situation in which candidates were forced to spend most of their waking hours beating the bushes for donations for years before an election. The only alternative is the fact that the law allows individuals to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their own campaigns. That's why - thanks to reform - the U.S. Senate has largely become a millionaires' club.

Another effect of the 1974 reforms was that issue-advocacy groups learned they could band together and form political-action committees that could harness the power of many individual donations. The PACs are another post-reform phenomena.

If the group in question is using its collective power for a cause most of us admire, like environmentalism or support for Israel, this use of money to advocate specific policies is considered democracy in action. But when "bad" groups whose causes some of us don't like (like the National Rifle Association) use the same system, we say it is bad for democracy.

The reforms neither enhanced democracy or improved the system. How can we have any confidence that Shays-Meehan or any other such "reform" will not further illustrate the law of unintended consequences by creating even worse inequities?

But there is another point about this debate that is rarely considered. It was brought to mind by a remark made by one of the foremost advocates of campaign finance reform, the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who stated a couple of years ago that one can have freedom of speech or campaign finance reform, but not both.

It may be political heresy to raise this question, but how is it that our laws recognize burning the flag and pornography as constitutionally protected "speech," but not buying a political advertisement?

Many of the proposed reforms, including some measures currently before Congress, would significantly restrict the speech of groups and individuals who do not have the bully pulpit of an incumbent legislative seat, a newspaper or a broadcast network.

Let's face it: The only time people complain about the unfair advantage one side had in an election is when their candidate loses. And for all its power, money really cannot buy an office. If you think it does, ask "Presidents" Rockefeller, Perot or Forbes for confirmation.

It seems to me that a system which would simply remove the cloak of secrecy from campaign contributions ought to be enough of a deterrent to corruption. Certainly more so than our current system.

What's more, fully publicly financed elections would merely create a system of welfare for politicians. Advocates for this idea should ask themselves how they feel about the fact that Pat Buchanan's independent presidential candidacy is being propelled primarily by campaign reform laws that could hand him $12 million in public funds to play with.

If we want to see just how bad such schemes are, we need only look at Israel, where parties and candidates are given the same kind of public money and free air time that American reformers dream about. Is their system less corrupt? Not even close.

The results of the Israeli electoral-campaign finance system are subsidized party apparatuses (multiplying every election cycle) and bloated, unaccountable parties and candidates hungry for public dollars. If that is reform, then who needs it?

Which leads us to another angle to this story: the role of Jewish contributors in American politics. American Jews are extremely generous with both parties (though especially so with the Democrats).

There are plenty of Jewish PACs that help educate politicians about Israel and other Jewish issues and reward those who vote the right way. Those who worry that a frank discussion of this situation will feed anti-Semitism should remember that what we are talking about is democracy in action: a constituency using its resources - and its votes - to make its voice heard.

But even if "reform" triumphs and the system changes, no one need worry about Jewish interests. The idea that money can be completely removed from politics is hopelessly naive. Just as in 1974, the new reforms will only create new loopholes that all groups with a passionate belief in issue advocacy will exploit.

It may well be that George W. Bush's progress toward a coronation at the Republican convention in Philadelphia next summer will help create a critical mass of support for changing the system.

But even as we worry about "The Shrub" purchasing the GOP, we need to remember that removing everyone's right to give money, and thereby put ideas out into the political marketplace, will be a violation of our First Amendment rights. We should stop, think and think again before we go down that path.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin