Campaign Finance Fantasyland

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With the House of Representatives expected to take up campaign financereform next month, let's journey to the "Fantasy Island" of the campaignreform activist. This political nirvana is distinguished by strict spendinglimits 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 affairsbetween evenly matched partisans. Campaigns would be driven by policies, notpersonalities. Negative campaigning would vanish. And an engaged citizenrywould surge to the polls.

That's the dream, anyway. For the reality, we need look no further thanGreat Britain, where the general election campaign ended on June 7. TheBritish election process is hardly utopian. On the contrary, it is a grosslyover-regulated affair that offers no solution to the problems (real andimagined) 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 strictspending limits. Spending per party was capped at $28 million, or 27 percentless than the two major parties, Labor and Conservative, spent on theirrespective 1997 campaigns. The major parties and their candidatescollectively spent just $1.65 per eligible voter. That compares with the$13.50 (itself too low) spent per eligible voter by Democratic andRepublican parties in the 2000 U.S. election.

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

What's more, these spending limits, which apply both to individualcandidates and to the national parties, furthered the cause of incumbencyprotection. For the average challenger, overcoming the inherent advantagesof incumbency (name recognition, subsidized office staff, constituencyservice, mailings and travel) usually requires outspending the incumbentduring the campaign. But since 63 percent of British incumbents were LaborMPs (and 98 percent of Labor MPs were reelected), spending restrictions thathurt challengers suited Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair just fine.

Likewise, the short campaign constrained the opposition from effectivelychallenging the governing party's blemished record, as did the ban on paidbroadcast advertising. The two major British parties are only permitted toair 5 five-minute "party election broadcasts" on television and radio duringthe course of the campaign. The one-time nature of these broadcasts severelylimited their potential effectiveness, while the length guaranteed aninattentive audience.

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

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

While American campaign reformers, with eyes wide shut, glance enviouslyacross the Atlantic, the rest of us should forget any hope of discovering areal "Fantasy Island." Severe constraints upon freedom of speech ensurethat, for those with eyes wide open, British-style campaign reform is merelya mirage.