A Reply to Ornstein and Corrado

The fifth anniversary of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as BCRA or McCain-Feingold) has arrived, and two of its defenders, Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado, took to the pages of The Washington Post yesterday to counter “a widespread view that BCRA did not work, that campaign reform has been a failure.”

They argue that McCain-Feingold has led to “the spectacular resurgence of political parties.” But the political parties were not in decline prior to 2002. They had been reviving since at least the mid-1990s, in part because of the resources that came from party soft money. Ornstein and Corrado say many people thought BCRA would hurt the parties. But, they say, that did not happen. Evidence? “In the two elections held before BCRA, the national parties raised a total of $2.1 billion, nearly half of it in unregulated ‘soft money’…In the two elections since, the parties raised exactly the same amount, but all in ‘hard money.’”

Notice the trick here. Ornstein and Corrado are comparing party fundraising in 2006 to party fundraising in 2002. They show that under BCRA in 2006 the parties raised as much hard money as they did soft and hard money in 2002. But that’s not what we want to know! We want to know whether the parties raised as much or more money in 2006 under BCRA as they would have in 2006 without BCRA. If they did, BCRA didn’t have much effect on fundraising.

As it happens, total party soft money fundraising doubled from mid-term election to mid-term election from 1992 onward. In 2006, the parties would have raised an additional $500 million in party soft money if BCRA had not passed. To be sure, some of the soft money that would have been raised turned up as hard money contributions to the parties in 2006 or as contributions to 527 groups. Even taking those into account, I suspect the parties would have raised  at least tens of millions of dollars more in 2006 if BCRA had not banned soft money fundraising. So it is not accurate to say that “our parties are richer.”  

According to Ornstein and Corrado, BCRA also made the parties “stronger at the grassroots,” citing party building and get-out-the-vote efforts. Yet in 2004 it was 527 groups (whose funding is not covered by BCRA) who supported the organizations that got out the Democratic vote in battleground states. By law, the 527 efforts could not be coordinated with the parties. As a result, the multi-million dollar contributions by George Soros and others did nothing to build up the Democratic party. In fact, many observers think the disjunction between the 527 get-out-the-vote effort and the Democratic party organization hampered Sen. Kerry’s presidential bid. As for party building, Howard Dean, the current head of the Democratic party, wanted to build up his party in 2006 even in states where Democrats had done poorly in the past. Dean’s party building effort came up short for lack of money. Had the Democrats been able to raise soft money, they would have had enough to both fight the 2006 election and build up their party across the board.

Ornstein and Corrado credit BCRA for a purported rise in small donors to the parties. By cutting off soft money, they imply, BCRA forced the parties to find small donors. They ignore two other factors. The Internet cut the cost of finding contributions and of making contributions. Meanwhile, the Iraq war and rising party competition mobilized donors and voters who otherwise might have stayed on the sidelines.

Our authors then confront the question of incumbent protection, an argument they associate with Newt Gingrich. They note that 22 House incumbents and 6 Senate incumbents lost in 2006. Ornstein and Corrado do not note that all 28 of those losing incumbents were Republican which might suggest a national wave of unhappiness directed at GOP candidates. BCRA did not offer enough incumbent protection for those 28 former members of Congress. But that does not prove that the Democratic wave of 2006 might not have been stronger in the absence of BCRA. As I argued earlier, their leaders believe the Democrats left 15 to 20 House seats on the table in 2006. Without BCRA, they would have had more party soft money to have pursued those 15 to 20 seats. Campaign finance regulations protect incumbents in more ways than one.

The effects on Democratic candidates and the Democratic party are important. 90 percent of congressional Democrats voted for BCRA. They believed the law would help Democratic candidates and their party. If we are honest, that partisan outcome was a leading, if not the primary, purpose of BCRA. (If you doubt that, ask the congressional Republicans of 2002: 80 percent of them voted against BCRA). So the question lingers: if Democrats ended up with less money and fewer House seats with BCRA than without it, was the law a success for Democrats in Congress and in the nation at large?

Ornstein and Corrado try hard to deflect this question. They identify opposition to BCRA with Republicans, conservative activists, and ideologues. Their Democratic readers are supposed to think, as they always have thought: Ick! Who wants to agree with stupid and evil people like that! Especially about money in politics. 

But that rhetorical gambit, like much of campaign finance “reform,” has grown stale. It’s not just the opponents of liberalism who are having doubts about Sen. McCain and his handiwork. I am certain that the smart, tough people who run Democratic congressional campaigns know BCRA cost the party seats. An important left-leaning expert on campaign finance has raised questions about the failures of the law. He also reports that the foundations that gave over $100 million to lobby for BCRA are wondering why they did so. That’s a lot of money for so little in return.

Not surprisingly, Ornstein and Corrado omit other consequences of BCRA. The law prohibited broadcast advertising within sixty days of a general election for a motion picture criticizing the current president of the United States. It also prohibited advertising within that time frame urging citizens to contact their representatives in Washington (if those representatives were running for re-election). We have no idea how much political speech was suppressed by BCRA’s ban on some issue ads.

BCRA’s prohibitions also fostered money moving to 527 groups followed by a regulatory push to eliminate such groups. If 527 groups are done away with, money may well go to nonprofit groups which will be followed by efforts to tightly control the political activities of such groups. BCRA has brought under state control a larger part of private political activity than ever before; it has also fomented a regulatory push that may yet deeply invade what’s left of private financing of political struggle.

The authors also omit BCRA’s failure to live up to the promises made by its supporters on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (I document these goals in the first chapter of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform). BCRA did not restore public confidence in government, largely because campaign finance regulations have nothing to do with trust in government. It did not prevent corruption among several Republican members of Congress (and perhaps, one Democrat).

Ornstein and Corrado suggest the law reduced the number of negative ads. But that’s pure speculation. Judging by the complaints of the “reform community,” campaigns remain as negative as ever. Of course, negative advertising is good for American democracy, and in any case, advocates always said campaign finance regulations concerned money and not the content of speech. If BCRA really sought to improve the content of speech, doesn’t that mean the law violated the First Amendment from the start?

BCRA has had three other results, each hopeful in its own way.  

BCRA has had random political effects. People on the left, who generally support such restrictions on money in politics, discovered they too could be “reformed.” This discovery may reduce support for future restrictions on speech.

The law also fostered a successful bipartisan coalition against campaign finance regulation when BCRA’s defenders tried to regulate and restrict political speech on the Internet. Perhaps the Internet will remain a speech zone free of campaign finance regulation.

The law also appears to be a major obstacle to Sen. John McCain’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps in the future ambitious politicians will consider the electoral costs of supporting restrictions on speech. Emerging presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who voted for BCRA now says: “I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”

Neither misleading numbers nor rhetorical gambits can change the reality that BCRA has failed its supporters and the nation. Perhaps a new start with money and politics, one more mindful of the First Amendment, is in order.

April Fool’s Dud

Over the weekend, I put an April Fool’s Day post up on Tech Liberation Front, indicating a security breach in the NAPHSIS EVVE system.  It was almost instantaneously debunked by a commenter.  Thank you so much, blogosphere … .  The post was intended to illustrate some issues with identification-based security and the REAL ID Act.

The National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems has developed and implemented the Electronic Verification of Vital Events system to allow immediate confirmation of the information on a birth certificate presented by an applicant to a government office anywhere in the nation irrespective of the place or date of issuance.

That sounds neat, but it is being incorporated into the REAL ID national ID system apparently without regard to the security issues involved. If we are going to use driver’s licenses for security purposes, each link in the chain of issuance is then a potential vulnerability.

What if the NAPHSIS EVVE system and others like it were compromised and made to confirm the issuance of birth certificates that didn’t actually exist? We could have untold numbers of licenses issued based on fraud. The system we have now, which provides a modicum of security, could collapse as fraudulently acquired driver’s licenses proliferate.

Two weeks ago, at the meeting of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, I asked Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS, what counter-measures might be employed by attackers on the REAL ID national ID system. He said, “We have done some thinking about that …” I’m not sure our confidence should be inspired.

Every weakness in the system should be explored carefully. I summarized some of them in Appendix A of my testimony at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.

Reviewing That Review

As David Boaz amply documents below, there are many irritating features to David Leonhardt’s NYT book review of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.  One that particularly stood out for me, however, was Leonhardt’s insinuation that libertarianism is partially to blame for the unfolding disaster in Iraq.  In a paragraph intended to catalogue libertarianism’s current political difficulties, Leonhardt writes that Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous.”  Now, if there is a properly “free-market” approach to bombing, invading, and occupying countries that don’t threaten us, I’m unaware of it. 

Perhaps Leonhardt is referring to Paul Bremer’s 2003 refusal to reopen state-run factories.  But the line suggests a broader attempt to hang the biggest foreign policy disaster in 30 years around libertarians’ necks.  Nice try.  The Iraq mess is the product of an ideological joint venture between neoconservatives and liberal hawks.  Libertarians, in the main, opposed it.  The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias–who’s no libertarian–understands this far better than Leonhardt.  As Yglesias put it a while back:   

the notion that anything even remotely resembling libertarianism could underwrite an effort to conscript huge quantities of resources from the American public and deploy them in an attempt to wholly remake the social and political order in a foreign country is too absurd to merit a rebuttal. This is an argument properly directed at egalitarian liberals, and we have reason to be asked to produce some specific arguments about why the dim prospects for succeeding at this were ex ante knowable (such arguments can, I think, be fairly easily produced) and/or why, given the opportunity costs, nation-building in Iraq was not a wise place to deploy the resources in question (this argument, I think, can be produced very easily). As long as the conversation is supposed to be proceeding on the shared basis of libertarianism, however, one hardly needs to say anything. It’s coercion, it’s planning, it’s every non-libertarian thing under the sun.

And as long as we’re passing out blame for the Iraq War, don’t forget that Leonhardt’s employer, the Grey Lady herself, deserves a large chunk.

“A Responsible Strategy”

Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, says that we should ” help[] the desperate but numerous Iranian opposition and the multiple ethnicities who live under this fanatic regime” by bombing their country.  Well, not quite.

He links to an op-ed by Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney in the Wall Street Journal, in which McInerney advocates pursuing a series of diplomatic objectives that are almost certain to fail (e.g., getting Arab countries to enforce a binding gasoline embargo on Iran) backed up by threats of “a campaign aimed at demonstrating to the Iranian regime that with 48 hours we could hit its nuclear development facilities, command and control facilities, integrated air defenses, Air Force and Navy units and the Shahab-3 missiles using over 2,500 aim points.”

This sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is becoming common among Washington’s more hawkish analysts.  The trick is to say “of course I’m not in favor of bombing Iran!  Why are you attacking a straw man?!?  Rather, I’m in favor of pressing a series of unworkable diplomatic objectives backed up by the threat of bombing Iran.”  It’s not difficult to see where this all leads.  (You can see why I think starting a war with Iran is a terrible idea here.)

Peretz attempts to defuse the endorsement of the McInerney Plan by damning McInerney with faint praise: “McInerney is no Curtis LeMay, not by a long shot.”  Thank goodness, LeMay was indeed an aberration, but I’d submit that LTG McInerney is the closest thing to a LeMay that we have today.  I recall this passage from the Atlantic Monthly’s wargame on North Korea, in which Jessica Mathews, chief of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was in the role of DNI, and McInerney in the role of chairman of the JCS.  Mathews was quibbling with the implications of the military option:

Director of National Intelligence Mathews disagreed that Seoul could be shielded: “My understanding is that we cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe for the first forty-eight.” McInerney disputed this, and Mathews asked him to explain.

McInerney: “There’s a difference between ‘protecting’ Seoul and [limiting] the amount of damage Seoul may take.”

Mathews: “There are a hundred thousand Americans in Seoul, not to mention ten million South Koreans.”

McInerney: “A lot of people are going to die, Jessica. But you still prevail.”

Mathews: “I just think we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to protect Seoul. If your daughter were living in Seoul, I don’t think you would feel the U.S. military could protect her in those first twenty-four hours.”

McInerney: “No, I do. I believe that we have the capability—whether from pre-emption or response—to minimize the casualties in Seoul.”

Mathews: “ ‘Minimize’ to roughly what level? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?”

McInerney: “I think a hundred thousand or less.”

McCain Surges On

From this morning’s Washington Post:

After a heavily guarded walk through a newly fortified Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain declared that the American public was not getting “a full picture” of the progress unfolding in Iraq.

McCain…cited a drop in murders, the creation of a constellation of joint U.S.-Iraqi military outposts and a rise in intelligence tips as signs of the progress.

“These and other indications are reason for cautious optimism,” McCain said.

[…]

His comments came on a day when the military reported that six American soldiers had been killed by roadside bombs southwest of Baghdad.

More evidence, if any was needed, that John McCain is at least as disconnected from reality as our current president.

Federal Judge Orders Forest Service to Spend Millions on Nothing

Back in the 1980s, the Forest Service spent well over a billion dollars writing forest plans for each of the 100 or so national forests. Naturally, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took many of these plans to court. After winning many of those challenges, they were stunned when the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the plans made no decisions. With no decisions, they did not constitute an “action,” so the court said no one had the standing to appeal them.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Congress that the plans it had required in 1976 did nothing but spend money, so Congress still requires the agency to revise the plans every ten to fifteen years. But last year, the Bush Administration decided to dispense with about half the paperwork involved in such revisions by not requiring the forests to write separate environmental impact statements for each plan.

Though the plans do nothing, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took this decision to court. Last week, a federal judge in California ruled that, even though the plans themselves were not an “action,” the rules for how the plans were written are an action. So the judge tossed the rules on the ground that the Forest Service had not written an environmental impact statement for them.

So we can expect the Forest Service to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on paper plans that make no decisions and take no actions. Although I consider myself more of an environmentalist than a “timber beast,” I am inclined to agree with a representative of the timber industry who says this is “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.”

Full disclosure: In the 1980s and 1990s, I helped the Sierra Club and other environmental groups challenge forest plans – for what it is worth, the only challenges that were successful were ones that I was involved in. The main lesson I learned was that planning was a waste of time – the Forest Service changed tremendously between 1980 and 2000, but most of those changes were in spite of planning, not because of it.