Tag: elections

Fear and Stasis

The Obama administration’s attacks on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce look a lot like a three-day story on its final day. The national media had its doubts, and even Democratic operatives decried the gambit.

Why did the administration go after the Chamber? The politics are not hard to figure out. Earlier actions of the Obama administration mobilized the Republican base. At the same time, the President and his party have been losing the support of independents for a year or so. Their only hope of limiting the electoral damage was to rally the Democratic base, who are discouraged and divided.

The Democratic base might agree about what they don’t like and fear: business, money in politics, and foreigners — or at least, foreigners spending money on politics. The attack on the Chamber of Commerce appealed to all three. The administration hoped that fear would engender hatred and hatred would bring people to the polls to vote against business and the GOP.

The most surprising part of the attack was the rather naked appeal to anti-foreign bias (see Bryan Caplan’s discussion of this concept here). Most people think of Democrats as friendly to undocumented foreign workers. But Democrats are first of all egalitarians; for them, the whole point of politics is to help the oppressed and harm the oppressor.  They do not favor undocumented foreigners because they believe people have a right to free exchange, borders notwithstanding. Instead, Democrats see undocumented foreigners as victims of oppression by American businesses. Foreigners who have enough money to spend on elections are oppressors in the egalitarian mind.

Obama promised hope and change. He and his party now want to maintain — so far as possible — the political status quo (that is, their control of Congress).  To do that they are trying to prompt fear and hatred among their most loyal voters. The new motto of the administration appears to be: fear and stasis.

Of course, the administration had no evidence the charges were true and argued that the Chamber should be seen as guilty until proven innocent. All in all, the whole affair suggests desperation and a complete loss of constraint in pursuing a political end. It suggests, I think, conduct that used to be covered by the word “Nixonian.”

Clean Elections Act Dirties the First Amendment

In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial in a lawsuit challenging the law showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections Act diminishes the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC struck down a similar provision in the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents. Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato has thus filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s decision upholding Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  We highlight Davis (in which Cato also filed a brief) and numerous other cases that point to a clear conclusion: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money (Arizona’s act automatically disburses matching funds) is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of our political debate, but it ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to review this case, McComish v. Bennett.

A Party Thumb On the Primary Scale?

Today Politico Arena asks:

Should national party organizations stay out of primaries?

My response:

Political parties are, strictly speaking, private entities. Therefore, they’re free to insinuate themselves into primary contests, or not. But as they do, so they will be judged.

Haley Barbour was absolutely right, therefore, to say that national party organizations shouldn’t endorse (ordinarily, incumbents) in primaries – much less assist one candidate over others. To the extent they do, they confirm the view of many Americans that the political class is more interested in preserving power – its own – than in governing for the common good under constitutional principle.

Do we need any better evidence than the way Republicans ran from the term limits plank in the Contract with America after they took over Congress in 1995? Oh, I forgot, there is better evidence: the way Democrats never even paid lip service to term limits.

Concerning the End of “Combat Operations” in Iraq

Several of today’s front pages feature iconic images of U.S. troops marching onto troop transports and into the sunset in Iraq. Today’s story by Ernesto Londoño in the Washington Post, features Lt. Col. Mark Bieger of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,  “This is a historic mission!” Beiger bellows as his troops prepared to depart Baghdad for the last time, ”A truly historic end to seven years of war.”

No disrespect to Col. Bieger and his troops, but the war isn’t over, and it won’t be so long as there are significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq at risk of being caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi government, more than five months after nationwide elections, remains in limbo. Talks over a power sharing arrangement have broken down. Meanwhile, violence is on the rise. Call it whatever you like, but the 50,000 troops who remain in Iraq are still dealing with a lot of challenges.

Much of the confusion in the media reporting revolves around semantics, words and phrases such as “combat” and “combat units.” It doesn’t help that George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that ”major combat operations in Iraq have ended” under that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. But beyond Bush’s irrational exuberance, such terms are increasingly misleading in an era in which conventional, state vs. state organized violence – what we used to think of as war – has been replaced by murky, disorganized violence, perpetrated by disparate militias, or merely disgruntled individuals unhappy with their lot in life, and determined to take it out on anyone who happens to be around at the time.

Unfortunately, I have very little confidence that that state of affairs will change any time soon. And I seriously doubt that our people – our men and women in uniform, and, explains Michael Gordon in the New York Times, soon many more U.S. civilians and contractors – will be able to put everything right, and not for lack of trying. Meanwhile, I am deeply troubled by the rising chorus of voices calling on the Obama administration to ignore the remaining provisions of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and prepare for an indefinite military presence in Iraq. (On this, see Ted Galen Carpenter’s latest entry at TNI’s The Skeptics blog.)

So, no, the war isn’t over. For better or worse (and chiefly the latter),  Americans will remain associated with an unpopular and government in Baghdad as it struggles to hold together the country’s disparate factions. They will be at great risk if the current political paralysis collapses into still wider violence.

Needless to say, I hope that doesn’t happen. But I won’t be striking up the band and declaring the war American in Iraq to be truly over, until all of our troops are back home.

Grigori Rasputin Bailout

Sending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to teachers and other public school employees is the bailout that just won’t die. It’s been sliced, shot up in a firefight between Democrats, and even had a battle with food stamps, but it just can’t be killed!

Now, let’s be clear: This is not some wonderful crusade all about helping “the children.” It is pure political evil, a naked ploy to appease teachers’ unions and other public school employees that Democrats need motivated for the mid-term elections. It has to be, because the data are crystal clear: We’ve been adding staff by the truckload for decades without improving achievement one bit. Since 1970 (see the charts below) public school employment has increased 10 times faster than enrollment, while test scores have stagnated.

But suppose there were some rational reason to believe that we need to keep staffing levels sky-high despite getting no value for it. Lots of teachers’ jobs could be saved without a bailout if unions would just accept pay concessions like millions of the Americans who fund their salaries. But all too often, they won’t.

Sadly, this is all just part of the one education race that Washington is always running, and it absolutely isn’t to the top. It is the incessant race to buy votes. And guess what? Despite its reputation even among some conservatives, the Obama administration, just like Congress, is running this race at record speeds.

The Principle behind Campaign Finance Regulation

Democratic House leaders apparently have reached a compromise that may bring the DISCLOSE Act to a vote. The National Rifle Association, a group that enjoys some support from House Democrats, objected to the bill’s disclosure provisions. DISCLOSE’s authors have now agreed to exempt “organizations that have more than 1 million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states, and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations.” The National Rifle Association qualifies for the exemption. But you knew that.

I wonder what principle of campaign finance regulation justifies this exemption? Earlier the authors of DISCLOSE said the American people deserve to know who is trying to influence elections. Now it would seem that voters only need information about relatively small, young, geographically-confined organizations that receive more than 15 percent of their money from corporations.

There is no principle at stake here. The NRA had enough support to stop the DISCLOSE Act. House leaders had to compromise by cutting the NRA a deal, a special exemption from the proposed law. The deal does show, if nothing else, that House Democrats are really worried about new money entering the fall campaign. They are willing to go a long way – even as far as helping the NRA – to make sure other speech funded by businesses and groups is not heard.

Finally, imagine you are a member of a group not exempted from DISCLOSE. You have been treated unequally by Congress.  The courts have said Congress can treat you unequally if they show that this exemption  for the NRA has a rational relationship to an important government purpose.  How does exempting older, bigger, more widespread groups with less than fifteen percent corporate funding help Americans cast an informed vote?  Put another way, if the NRA deserves an exemption, doesn’t everyone?

A Public Thumb on the Election Scales

When taxpayers underwrite the campaign expenses of candidates for public office, serious questions arise: Not least, why should taxpayers subsidize candidates or ideas they oppose? But when taxpayers subsidize only one side in a campaign, there should be outrage. Perhaps there was at the Supreme Court this morning, when the Court blocked an appalling opinion out of, not surprisingly, the oft-overturned Ninth Circuit.

In McComish v. Bennett the Goldwater Institute is challenging Arizona’s Clean Elections Act, under which “candidates who run with public campaign subsidies receive an almost dollar-for-dollar match each time a privately funded opponent raises money above a certain amount,” the Goldwater press release states, “and additional matches when independent expenditures are made against the subsidized candidate.”

The problem for proponents of this Act is that the Supreme Court has said more than once that “leveling the playing field” is a forbidden rationale for campaign finance regulations. Moreover, and more precisely, in 2008, in Davis v. FEC, the Court held that the so-called Millionaires Amendment to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act of 2002 was unconstitutional. Under that amendment the contribution caps that would otherwise apply to congressional candidates were lifted if a candidate was running against a self-financed opponent – a “millionaire” who, under the First Amendment, could not be restricted in funding his own campaign. Again, leveling the playing field won’t do. (Note also that that amendment put a lie to the main rationale for campaign finance restrictions – to prohibit corruption or its appearance. The caps are needed to prevent the candidate from being corrupted, so the argument runs – unless he’s running against a millionaire, in which case he won’t be corrupted by the added contributions. Such are the lengths to which campaign finance regulators are prepared to go to justify their schemes.)

Writing for the majority in Davis, Justice Alito went to the heart of the matter: “It is a dangerous business for Congress to use the election laws to influence the voters’ choices.” That it is, and it’s not through election laws alone that Congress – or states, as here – tries to influence voters choices through the use of taxpayer dollars. Do we need any better example, on this primary election day around the country, than publicly-funded National Public Radio?

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver found Arizona’s Act unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But the state appealed, and last month a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion stating that the damage to free speech was minimal. This morning the Supreme Court issued an order to enforce the District Court’s injunction against the use of matching funds. As reported by the Goldwater Institute, the order says the injunction will remain in effect until the Court rules on the underlying appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision. The injunction also would be lifted if the Supreme Court decides not to consider the formal appeal. This is one to watch.