Commentary

The Limits of Campaign Finance Reform

A version of this article appeared as a letter to the editor in the Weekly Standard, January 31, 2000.
Syndicated columnist Robert Novak’s new book, Completing the Revolution, is excellent, but it contains one seriously flawed chapter that gives Republicans some very bad advice for improving our system of campaign finance system.

Novak is critical of Republicans for “trying their best to block every proposal” for campaign finance reform. But the one real reform that would have the positive effect of reinvigorating our democracy with more competitive congressional races — eliminating the $1,000 individual contribution limit to federal candidates — is casually dismissed. “That won’t happen,” Novak writes. He then argues for more likely “reforms” in the McCain-Feingold mold, namely, restrictions on PACs, soft-dollar contributions, and support for the curious notion that federal “candidates raise 70 percent or 80 percent of their campaign money in their own state or district.” The latter’s okay with me, as long as the congressman promises not to vote on any legislation that impacts outside his state or district.

Bob Novak should know better than to fall in with folks who would make it a crime for independent groups to run ads criticizing a federal candidate 60 days before an election. Right now, Sen. McCain is whining about an ad being run in New Hampshire by Americans for Tax Reform that criticizes his position on banning ads mentioning candidates 60 days prior to a federal election. Under McCain-Feingold, it would be against the law for ATR to air that ad, which is what that aspect of campaign finance reform is all about. Most congressmen resent private sector involvement in campaigns and having to be held accountable for their record.

Novak may be right that not all Republicans wrapping themselves in the mantle of the First Amendment on this issue are sincere. That doesn’t mean that the First Amendment doesn’t apply. In fact, money is a proxy for information in campaigns and any restrictions on it keeps voters in the dark while enhancing the information gatekeeping power of the media. It’s not for nothing the networks and the Washington Post and New York Times are rabid proponents of campaign finance reform. But as the Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo, “the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voices of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.”

In a free society, there will always be some who have more influence on elections than others. Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip frequently attacks George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. It appears in over 600 newspapers nationwide. The impact of those strips on campaigns must be in the neighborhood of hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of dollars. The same is true for Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and, for that matter, Robert Novak’s nationally ubiquitous commentary in print and on the air. They play an important role in an open, vigorous democracy. But do they have First Amendment rights the rest of us don’t have merely by virtue of their involvement in the media? One would hope not.

Novak equates money, not with information, but with corruption. In fact, corruption is the raison d’etre of campaign finance reform for groups ranging from Common Cause to the League of Women Voters. Yet, strangely, fingers are never pointed. Just who are these “corrupt” congressmen (other than the constantly self-flagellating McCain) whose abuse of the system requires us to give up our First Amendment rights? Silence. Besides, with a 98 percent reelection rate (as was the case in the House of Representatives in 1998), who needs to be corrupt? The system is so rigged in favor of incumbents that it’s absurd to suggest that $5,000 PAC contributions are going to make any congressman stand up and salute. Since money for advertising has declining marginal benefits, the real advantages incumbents have are found in all the free publicity, the name recognition, the franking privilege and large staffs devoted to “constituent services” — the permanent campaign. Even more importantly, the lack of resources available to their challengers that result from the $1,000 contribution limit reduces both the quality and effectiveness of those challengers.

Novak wrings his hands over the fact that “the lobbyists are intimately and inextricably involved in the campaign finance issue.” He warns that “this process is not a good thing.” Maybe not, but it’s an inevitable thing, given an $1.8 trillion federal budget. Bob Novak should follow the advice found elsewhere in his book. The proper way to get rid of the army of lobbyists in Washington is by ending corporate welfare, junking the IRS code in favor of a flat tax, and returning to constitutional first principles. Indeed, if the government limited its activities to those within the powers granted in Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution, campaigns would be of significantly less interest to lobbyists.

The bottom line with campaign finance reform is that the “reformers” want elections to be the private preserve of the political class. The thing that the political class fears most is a well-funded challenger. Indeed, those who would shake up the status quo would benefit most by removing contribution limits. Gene McCarthy shook things up in 1968 with the help of six-figure contributions from Stewart Mott and other wealthy liberal opponents of the Vietnam War. Had the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act been in effect then, McCarthy says, there’s no way he could have waged a campaign. As McCarthy puts it, the Founders pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the Revolution. They didn’t say “lives and fortunes up to $1,000.”

The Supreme Court got it partly right in Buckley in striking down spending limits: “The First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one’s political views is wasteful, excessive, or unwise. In the free society ordained by our Constitution it is not the government, but the people — individually as citizens and candidates and collectively as associations and political committees — who must retain control over the quantity and range of debate on public issues in a political campaign.” But the Court was wrong in upholding contribution limits, as though they are somehow unrelated to campaign spending. To make campaigns more competitive and thereby attract more and better candidates for Congress, we need fewer campaign finance laws, not more.

Ed Crane is president of the Cato Institute.