Commentary

Campaign Finance Fantasyland

By Patrick Basham
June 9, 2001
With the House of Representatives expected to take up campaign finance reform next month, let’s journey to the “Fantasy Island” of the campaign reform activist. This political nirvana is distinguished by strict spending limits on parties, candidates and independent groups; inexpensive and short campaigns; and a total ban on paid television and radio ads.

In this reformer’s paradise, elections would be highly competitive affairs between evenly matched partisans. Campaigns would be driven by policies, not personalities. Negative campaigning would vanish. And an engaged citizenry would surge to the polls.

That’s the dream, anyway. For the reality, we need look no further than Great Britain, where the general election campaign ended on June 7. The British election process is hardly utopian. On the contrary, it is a grossly over-regulated affair that offers no solution to the problems (real and imagined) experienced by the United States.

The British campaign was an imprudently brief (30 days) and cheap affair. This was the first campaign in which the parties had to comply with strict spending limits. Spending per party was capped at $28 million, or 27 percent less than the two major parties, Labor and Conservative, spent on their respective 1997 campaigns. The major parties and their candidates collectively spent just $1.65 per eligible voter. That compares with the $13.50 (itself too low) spent per eligible voter by Democratic and Republican parties in the 2000 U.S. election.

Money is a proxy for political speech, enabling political information to be widely disseminated and increasing the probability of competitive elections. Paltry British spending ensured that in the past month the electorate received only snippets of information from their parties.

What’s more, these spending limits, which apply both to individual candidates and to the national parties, furthered the cause of incumbency protection. For the average challenger, overcoming the inherent advantages of incumbency (name recognition, subsidized office staff, constituency service, mailings and travel) usually requires outspending the incumbent during the campaign. But since 63 percent of British incumbents were Labor MPs (and 98 percent of Labor MPs were reelected), spending restrictions that hurt challengers suited Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair just fine.

Likewise, the short campaign constrained the opposition from effectively challenging the governing party’s blemished record, as did the ban on paid broadcast advertising. The two major British parties are only permitted to air 5 five-minute “party election broadcasts” on television and radio during the course of the campaign. The one- time nature of these broadcasts severely limited their potential effectiveness, while the length guaranteed an inattentive audience.

The opposition parties’ only recourse was paid advertising in the national newspapers — a relatively ineffective tool in the age of the Internet and digital and satellite TV — and on roadside billboards. The latter mode is as inefficient as the former, but for the non-governing parties, there weren ‘t any other media baskets in which to place their advertising eggs. Of course, the Labor government minimized the likelihood that any opposition advertising would dent its large opinion poll lead by spending enormous sums of taxpayer money ($88 million in the three months prior to the campaign) propagating the message that New Britain is performing very well under the enlightened command of New Labor.

What did the electorate receive in return for a more heavily regulated campaign? A highly uncompetitive race (Labor again won 63 percent of the seats), bathed in a sea of substance- free sound bites and highly negative, personal attacks on the party leaders. So high was voter apathy that turnout fell to the lowest level since 1918.

While American campaign reformers, with eyes wide shut, glance enviously across the Atlantic, the rest of us should forget any hope of discovering a real “Fantasy Island.” Severe constraints upon freedom of speech ensure that, for those with eyes wide open, British-style campaign reform is merely a mirage.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.