Commentary

Campaign Reform: It’s Anything But

By Patrick Basham
This article originally appeared in the New York Post on December 11, 2003.

The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, ushering in a new era of regulation of political campaigns. What will it look like?

The law severely restricts political advertising and bans soft-money (unregulated) donations to federal parties and candidates. (Just why the court upheld a law that clearly abridges the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee is a question for another day.)

Previous “reforms” taught us there’s nothing certain about campaign-finance rules: New law produces unpredictable and unintended consequences. But these “reforms” will almost certainly give us campaigns that are less competitive, less controlled by candidates and their parties and involve fewer voters than the typical recent campaign.

Independent ads funded by groups representing business, labor or single-issue interests are disproportionately critical of incumbents, indirectly aiding their opponents. So the new restrictions on independent advertising will further hamper the efforts of the average challenger.

The brazenly unconstitutional restrictions on third-party advertising prior to primary day are intended to “return control” over campaigns to the candidates and their parties. Yet, as a result of the soft-money ban, both the parties and their candidates will lose influence over their own campaigns. In fact, the new law severely weakens the major parties.

The national parties now coordinate their ad campaigns with their respective senatorial and congressional candidates. Under the new rules, they can’t - so the par- ties will have less operational and strategic influence over specific campaigns.

But special interest groups, corporations and labor unions can still use soft money; now those groups will spend that money independently of the parties and candidates. And wealthy individuals’ soft-money giving that once went to the parties will now flow to those special-interest campaigns instead.

Political actions committees - PACs - will proliferate, too. Why? Because under the new rules PACs can still advertise (using only hard money to pay for it) in the final 60 days of the general-election campaign. So anyone wanting to address the voters at that key time will have strong incentive to raise funds for an existing PAC or to set up a new one.

Expect a lot of new PAC-run micro-campaigns. Many will perform a series of one-off attack ads in specific races. These hit-and-run operations will all occur completely outside the control (but not the purview) of individual campaigns and the national parties.

Everyone (except perhaps congressmen) favors elections that are more competitive. Unfortunately, the ban on soft-money fund-raising by the national parties will make our elections significantly more uncompetitive. How? Both major parties now use soft money to increase the competitiveness of individual congressional races. Without those partisan resources pouring into targeted districts, serious challengers will threaten fewer incumbents, thereby further reducing political competition.

Here’s another loss for political choice: With two new burdens on any challenge to an incumbent - the loss of soft money and the limits on independent advertising - fewer people will be willing step forward to try.

Campaign-finance regulators decry public apathy, especially as reflected in low levels of voter turnout. They blame low turnout in part on negative ads paid for by soft money. But this ignores the fact that the parties do much more with their soft-money revenue - like register voters and conduct get-out-the-vote efforts, especially among minority voters.

So the ban on soft-money giving to the parties is sure to handicap voter identification and mobilization efforts at the local level. The best available research concludes that voter turnout will fall about 2 percent.

In short, the result of these reforms will be virtually the opposite of what campaign-finance regulators say they want. Most Americans support real political reform. Sadly, that is not the future promised to them by either the Supreme Court or the self-described reformers.

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