John McCain Is Wrong

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The Senate votes today on campaign finance “reform.” Sen. John McCain, likeall campaign finance reformers, has based his crusade on two arguments: 1)spending on elections has caused public cynicism and mistrust towardAmerican government, and 2) the public is clamoring for reform. Both claimsare false.

Experts have hard data on both public trust and campaign spending. Every twoyears since 1964, the University of Michigan’s National Election Studieshave polled the public on the level of trust they have in government. Since1977, the Federal Election Commission has kept data on congressionalspending. During that period, campaign spending has risen. If McCain isright about campaign spending causing public cynicism, trust in governmentshould have fallen continually since 1977.

In fact, citizen trust in government dropped dramatically in the 1960s andearly 1970s. Since then, it has gone up and down; on the whole, trust ingovernment remains slightly above its nadir in 1980. Two conclusions can bedrawn. First, the major drop in citizen trust took place before the run-upin spending. Second, the evidence shows only a minute relationship betweentrust and campaign spending. In fact, the statistical relationship betweenspending and mistrust is very close to zero.

Cynicism toward politics is clearly rooted in something far deeper thancampaign contributions. Mistrust of the federal government grew sharply from1964 to 1980, a period that included the Vietnam War, Watergate, risinginflation and economic stagnation. The period was filled with examples ofcorruption, deceit, incompetence and chicanery. The sharp decline in publictrust responded to concrete events.

Sen. McCain’s obsession with soft money is also misplaced. Soft moneyspending grew after two liberalizations of the Federal Election Campaign Actin 1978 and 1979. In 1995 and 1996, President Clinton and Vice PresidentGore raised significant sums of soft money leading to the “selling of theLincoln bedroom” scandals and numerous investigations that lasted throughoutthe 1990s. The data show, however, that public trust in government rose forabout six years after the soft money liberalizations of 1978-79. Similarly,public trust in government increased throughout and after the period of theClinton soft money controversies. Whatever else might be true, soft moneydoes not cause more public mistrust of government.

Most polls do show that the public desires changes to a “broken” system.Some polls even show significant support for limiting campaign expenditures,a clear violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, thissupport is quite thin. In an examination of nearly a dozen polls takenduring the 2000 campaign by outfits such as The Wall Street Journal, FoxNewsand Harris, none found more than 2 percent of the population mentioningcampaign finance reform as a top one or two issue. McCain is fond of usingthe American people’s “demands” as a justification for his attempts tostifle political communication. This is hardly supported by the data. TheAmerican people are far more concerned about real issues like taxation, theeconomy and education.

New regulations on campaign finance will not increase public trust ingovernment because campaign spending did not cause public cynicism. And thepublic is not clamoring for new regulations on campaign finance. In fact,the public believes Congress has better things to do with its time. On thatscore, Congress would do well to listen to the people.