Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Campaign Finance Regulation without Romance

Candidates are in hot pursuit of the party nominations and eventually the presidency. That means they are defining enemies, inducing fear, and offering voters hope — that their enemies will be punished and their fears relieved.

The rhetoric of campaign finance regulation is replete with such  enemies — the special interests, “Big Money,” the rich and so on — and one set of friends, “reformers.” Barack Obama has been especially skillful practicing this politics of fear to pave the way for additional restrictions on money in politics.

However, the reality of campaign finance regulation is a lot different from the rhetoric, and the 2008 campaign has already brought an exemplar of regulation absent romance.

Unity08 is an organization that tried to put together a “centrist, bi-partisan approach to the solving of our nation’s problems and the possibility of an independent, unity ticket for the presidency.” Unity08 sought to be a movement first and a third party with a candidate, second. I use the past tense here because a posted letter to their supporters suggests their effort has come to an end.

Unity08’s analysis of the reasons for their failure merits attention. They now lack enough members or money to go on. The two are interdependent: more members generate more money and vice versa. The Unity08 leaders think a lack of money posed the biggest obstacle:

The Federal Election Commission … has taken the position that we are subject to their jurisdiction … and, therefore, that we are limited to $5000 contributions from individuals (even though the Democrat and Republican Parties are able to receive $25,000 from individuals). Needless to say, this position by the FEC effectively limited our fundraising potential, especially in the crucial early going when we needed substantial money fast to get on with ballot access and the publicity necessary to build our membership. We were caught in a peculiar catch-22; we wanted to break the dependence on big money by getting lots of small contributions from millions of members, but needed some up-front big money to help generate the millions of members to make the small contributions. And the FEC (in effect, an arm of the parties) didn’t let that happen.

The need for large donations to build fundraising capacity was first discovered by the best political science book you never heard of. Contribution limits complicate political organizing by outsiders and thereby stabilize the status quo and benefit those who hold power.

Campaign finance regulations are sold as a panacea for all that ails Americans. They are said to foster competition, prevent corruption, and purify political speech. The Unity08 leaders have found out the truth about such regulations. Such rules are largely created to stifle electoral competition to help out one party or the other, or — as in this case — to permit both parties to stifle a third alternative. Such regulations don’t outlaw competition; they do establish arcane rules that discriminate against outsiders like Unity08.

When a candidate starts demonizing Big Money, remember Unity08 and the reality its leaders discovered, too late for their cause.

A Capital Waste of Time

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard argument in Baze v. Rees, otherwise known as the “lethal injection case.”  Contrary to popular perception—and the wishes of certain activist groups—Baze considers neither the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution nor the validity of the death penalty itself.  Instead, the issue is whether the particular three-chemical formula used by most states that employ lethal injection causes undue pain and suffering such that the method violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The Court’s decision—likely to be 5-4 with Justice Kennedy the swing vote as always—may turn on what weight the justices place on the availability of other “ drug cocktails” that purportedly accomplish the same result with less chance for “undue pain and suffering.”  But that critical point raises two further (non-legal) questions: 1) Whether the case is about little more than delaying executions that will take place regardless of this particular ruling; and 2) Why haven’t all the relevant states simply adopted the “better” chemical protocols and rendered this case moot?  Ultimately, this high profile case is a waste of judicial resources.

Another Anti-Immigration Campaign Flops

With his disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last night, Mitt Romney joins a growing list of politicians who have failed to ride the immigration issue to success when it counts.

To woo conservative voters, Romney has run a series of hard-hitting ads attacking his Republican rivals for being soft on illegal immigration. His ads and campaign speeches have thumped John McCain for supporting “amnesty” for unauthorized immigrants already here and Mike Huckabee for supporting in-state tuition for the minor children of illegal immigrants.

Although Romney had struck a more constructive tone toward the issue when he was governor of Massachusetts, polls and talk radio have convinced him that sounding harsher-than-thou on illegal immigration would be a key to winning the hearts of conservative Republicans. The strategy didn’t appear to help him in Iowa even though he outspent his rivals by millions of dollars.

Romney isn’t the first politician to push the immigration button and come away empty-handed. Just before the Iowa caucuses, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo announced he was dropping out of the Republican primary race even though he trumpeted the most hard-core anti-illegal-immigration stance of any candidate. California Congressman Duncan Hunter barely registered among Iowa caucus goers last night even though he too had staked out a hard-line position against any legalization. And let’s not forget that in 2000, the articulate and amiable Pat Buchanan spent $12 million in taxpayer dollars to spread his anti-immigration message as the Reform Party candidate for president, and attracted a paltry one half of one percent of the vote on Election Day.

Americans have always been ambivalent about immigration, and a solid majority today wants the government to seriously address the problem of illegal immigration. But as I have argued here and here, voters have not rewarded politicians who demagogue the issue. Let’s hope the rest of the Republican field takes notice.

Australian National ID Card Abandoned

This somewhat cryptic blog post at Wired reflects the delight of Roger Clarke that the Australian national ID card has been dropped by the incoming government. Clarke wrote an article in 1994 that is probably fairly regarded as the foundation of identification theory. I expanded on his thinking in my book, Identity Crisis.

In related news, Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester put language prohibiting the expenditure of federal funds for development of a national ID card in the omnibus spending bill Congress passed last week. Because the Department of Homeland Security denies that REAL ID is a national ID, this language is probably hortatory during the current administration.

Update on the Internet Gambling Dispute

Good news and not-so-good news on the long-running saga over internet gambling (background here): Antigua has been awarded $21 million annual “damages” as a result of the United States’ restrictions on offshore provision of internet gambling and betting services.

That is far less than the $3.4 billion Antigua had asserted it is owed, but more than the United States had suggested was warranted ($500,000). On the other hand, the arbitrator gave Antigua permission to collect the damages by suspending their obligations to protect U.S. intellectual property. The $21 million worth of pirated software, movies, and music would go on annually unless and until the United States changes its laws, so we can expect some lobbying from Hollywood to have the restrictions on internet gambling lifted.

The report just came out, so I have yet to absorb it fully myself, but here it is.