Commentary

Ten Big Lies about Campaign Finance Reform

By Peggy Ellis
October 9, 1997

1. The American people are clamoring for campaign finance reform.

Outside of Washington and the political elites, campaign finance reform finishes at the bottom of the list of issues people care about (3%). Most voters believe that whatever reforms are passed, politicians will find a way around the new rules (73%). By huge margins, voters are less likely to vote for their Member of Congress if they vote for reforms that are unconstitutional (88%), make it easier for them to get re-elected (71%), make it more difficult for citizens’ groups to inform voters of candidates’ voting records (80%) or increase the relative power of the media (69%) (Tarrance Group, June 1997).

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the “Darth Vader of campaign finance reform,” won re-election last year with a 160,000 vote margin — without the endorsements of the two largest newspapers because of his stance on “reform” and with the maximum contributions allowed by law from the tobacco companies. Rep. Linda Smith (R-WA) won her first election while being hugely outspent by the incumbent. She then became the darling of campaign finance reformers and almost lost.

2. Only wealthy special interests have access to Members of Congress.

Poppycock. The first item on all members’ calendars is, and will always be, constituents. Members of Congress meet with lobbyists and policy experts all day long and then go vote the way they want to. Further, it is part of every legislative aide’s job to meet with all sides to best prepare their boss for whatever the issue might be. As Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) said at a recent hearing, “I’ll tell you who has access to me —- anyone registered to vote in the state of Utah.”

3. Banning soft money is the only way to assure the scandals of the ’96 presidential election don’t happen again.

The best way to assure the abuses of ’96 don’t happen again is to punish those who have broken the law. Soft money was banned in the original 1974 rules and the 1976 election was run without soft money. Parties were so strapped for cash that traditional activities such as bumper stickers and get out the vote drives were sharply curtailed. One of the primary purposes of the 1979 Amendments to the Federal Election Act (FECA) was to restore soft money. Traditional party building activities are clearly not what the reformers want to control. It is the issue ads run by the parties —- which are the essence of First Amendment protected speech. To eliminate this distortion, eliminate the limits on party contributions to their candidates. It is bizarre that political parties cannot give directly to their candidates as much as they want. No claims can be made of a corrupting relationship between a candidate and their political party. And for those who want to open up the political process and loosen the grip of incumbents, political parties are the one group that will always support a challenger.

4. You can constitutionally control issue advocacy.

It is often forgotten that the original 1974 Amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act, Congress sought to limit issue ads, just as many do now The Supreme Court overturned these rules. Nothing is more central to the core of what our country was founded on than the ability of private individuals and groups to discuss, criticize and protest their elected officials and those that seek office. A twenty-year string of court decisions reaffirm that free and unencumbered political speech enjoys the highest First Amendment protection and cannot be regulated by the federal government.

5. Most issue ads are “thinly veiled campaign ads” and, therefore, can and must be regulated by the Federal Election Commission.

Nothing is more central to the First Amendment than the rights of individuals and groups to participate openly and freely in our nation’s political debate. Reformers and misinformed Senators claim that, since issue ads are clearly intended to influence an election, they should be regulated. Buckley v. Valeo anticipated this argument: of course the Court held that these ads are intended to influence elections, but our First Amendment rights are so central to our political freedom that unless the words “vote for” or “vote against” are used, these ads are issue advocacy and cannot be regulated by the government.

6. McCain-Feingold will open up the system.

In fact, McCain-Feingold could be renamed the Incumbent Protection Act. The stratospheric incumbent re-election rate we have today is a direct result of the 1974 rules. Contribution and spending limits and tighter controls on issue advocacy are blatant incumbent protection. All the distortions in the current system are results of the 1974 rules – the 90% incumbent re-election rate, the explosion of issue advocacy and soft money and the increase of millionaires in office, the amount of time candidates have to spend raising money, the increase in the relative power of the media and celebrities. More of the same is not the answer.

7. Buckley was a 5-to-4 decision and “a close call,” vulnerable to future court tests.

On the contrary —- we have 20 years of court decisions reaffirming the central findings of the Buckley decision. In the area of issue advocacy alone, in the years since Buckley was decided, both the Supreme Court and lower courts have, time and time again, reaffirmed the reasoning and holding of that decision as it pertains to the protection of issue advocacy. The 126 “constitutional scholars” currently said to endorse McCain-Feingold do not endorse the issue advocacy restrictions at all, only the soft money and spending limits. In fact, the 4th Circuit was so disturbed by the FEC’s continual attempts to redraw the lines defining issue advocacy that they demanded in April that the FEC pay Christian Action Network’s court costs.

8. Campaign costs are spiraling out of control.

This “explosion” is outside of candidate spending. Candidate spending was virtually flat between 1994 and 1996 with an explosion of issue ads outside of the campaigns themselves. The answer, however, is not to trample the First Amendment rights of private individuals, but to lift the contribution limits on parties and candidates. Let the money spent on many of the issue ads flow directly to the candidates. As for the anger many Members have at private groups expressing their views and —- absolutely —- trying to influence their election —- too bad! Politics and political campaigns belong to the people, not to the candidates and certainly not the federal government. The right to seek to persuade fellow citizens at election time is as fundamental as the right to vote itself.

9. Obscene amounts of money are spent in political campaigns.

Congressional candidates spent approximately $740 million dollars during the last congressional race. This is only slightly higher than the approximately $720 million spent in the 1994 congressional race. $700 million is a lot of money —- but not when compared to what we spend as a society in other areas. These congressional totals average less than $4 per eligible voter. If you look at every race in the country, from dogcatcher to president, the amount spent is less than $10 per eligible voter. As a society, we spend more on potato chips, Barbie dolls, yogurt and a host of other commodities than we do on politics. While many of us may like Barbie dolls and potato chips more than we like politics, only politics has control over every aspect of our lives.

10. We must control the amount of money spent in campaigns because candidates and Members of Congress have to spend all their time raising money.

It is the ridiculous $1,000 contribution limit that has limited the ability of challengers to raise the money they need to mount a successful campaign —- and the reason Members of Congress have to spend so much time raising money. The answer is not to control the amount candidates can spend, which would only further entrench incumbents, but to eliminate the contribution limits. Let the money flow directly to the candidates and, with almost-instant electronic disclosure, let the voters decide.

Peggy Ellis is director of government affairs at the Cato Institute.