Commentary

Most Campaign Finance ‘Reform’ a Bad Idea

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Campaign fund-raising has never been pretty, but the Clinton administration’s willingness to sell almost anything for a buck has spurred efforts to “reform” the system, even at the cost of the first Amendment. Although federal legislation is stalled, some enthusiasts point to progress at the state level.

However, the notion that elections are awash in money just isn’t true. Last year, when the administration was avidly soliciting money from foreign interests, the total spent on all federal races was still only $2.8 billion. That’s about $10 a person, or one CD. This hardly seems an excessive outlay to help elect people who control a $1.7 trillion budget.

And most of the ongoing state reforms, like public funding, spending limits and contribution restrictions, will only make things worse. For instance, forcing taxpayers to subsidize campaigns of opposing candidates violates the principle of free elections. Limiting out-of-state contributions ignores the impact of decisions beyond state borders. Banning off-year fundraising favors name politicos who can most easily collect a lot of money in a short time.


Ultimately, the only true campaign reform is to shrink government. As long as $1.7 trillion in taxpayer wealth is available for plundering in Washington, interest groups will spend mightily to get their hands on it.


Nor will any of these supposed fixes moderate special-interest influences. Rather, such “reform” inevitably enhances the power of one faction (say, labor unions) to the detriment of another (perhaps trade associations). In fact, it was the 1974 legislation that, by outlawing large contributions, spurred the development of political action committees. Over the past two decades, PAC outlays jumped eightfold.

Even more disturbing is how the 1974 “reforms” reinforced incumbents. According to Bradley Smith of Capital University Law School, “House incumbents, who had previously outspent challengers by approximately 1.5 to 1, now outspend challengers by nearly 4 to 1; incumbent re-election rates have risen to record high levels.”

Almost all current reform proposals, at the state and federal levels alike, would similarly aid incumbents. Resources will never by truly equal, given the many advantages inherent to incumbents. Yet limiting electoral activism by individuals and groups would make it even more difficult for challengers to beat the odds. Political careerism is already a greater danger than is influence-peddling. “Reform” would make the system more rather than less corrupt.

Ultimately, the only true campaign reform is to shrink government. As long as $1.7 trillion in taxpayer wealth is available for plundering in Washington, interest groups will spend mightily to get their hands on it.

In the meantime, Congress and the states should deregulate elections. Allow any contribution of any amount, so long as it’s fully disclosed. Then voters, after judging candidates’ fund-raising practices as well as policy positions, could make the final decision.

Doug Bandow, formerly a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.