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 everyproposal" for campaign finance reform. But the one real reform that wouldhave the positive effect of reinvigorating our democracy with morecompetitive congressional races -- eliminating the $1,000 individualcontribution limit to federal candidates -- is casually dismissed. "Thatwon't happen," Novak writes. He then argues for more likely "reforms" in theMcCain-Feingold mold, namely, restrictions on PACs, soft-dollarcontributions, and support for the curious notion that federal "candidatesraise 70 percent or 80 percent of their campaign money in their own state ordistrict." The latter's okay with me, as long as the congressman promisesnot 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 themantle of the First Amendment on this issue are sincere. That doesn't meanthat the First Amendment doesn't apply. In fact, money is a proxy forinformation in campaigns and any restrictions on it keeps voters in the darkwhile enhancing the information gatekeeping power of the media. It's not fornothing the networks and the Washington Post and New York Times are rabidproponents of campaign finance reform. But as the Court ruled in Buckley v.Valeo, "the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elementsof our society in order to enhance the relative voices of others is whollyforeign to the First Amendment."

In a free society, there will always be some who have more influence onelections than others. Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip frequentlyattacks George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. It appears in over 600 newspapersnationwide. The impact of those strips on campaigns must be in theneighborhood of hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of dollars. The sameis true for Rush Limbaugh's radio show and, for that matter, Robert Novak'snationally ubiquitous commentary in print and on the air. They play animportant role in an open, vigorous democracy. But do they have FirstAmendment rights the rest of us don't have merely by virtue of theirinvolvement 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 groupsranging from Common Cause to the League of Women Voters. Yet, strangely,fingers are never pointed. Just who are these "corrupt" congressmen (otherthan the constantly self-flagellating McCain) whose abuse of the systemrequires us to give up our First Amendment rights? Silence. Besides, with a98 percent reelection rate (as was the case in the House of Representativesin 1998), who needs to be corrupt? The system is so rigged in favor ofincumbents that it's absurd to suggest that $5,000 PAC contributions aregoing to make any congressman stand up and salute. Since money foradvertising has declining marginal benefits, the real advantages incumbentshave are found in all the free publicity, the name recognition, the frankingprivilege and large staffs devoted to "constituent services" -- thepermanent campaign. Even more importantly, the lack of resources availableto their challengers that result from the $1,000 contribution limit reducesboth the quality and effectiveness of those challengers.

Novak wrings his hands over the fact that "the lobbyists are intimately andinextricably involved in the campaign finance issue." He warns that "thisprocess is not a good thing." Maybe not, but it's an inevitable thing, givenan $1.8 trillion federal budget. Bob Novak should follow the advice foundelsewhere in his book. The proper way to get rid of the army of lobbyists inWashington is by ending corporate welfare, junking the IRS code in favor ofa flat tax, and returning to constitutional first principles. Indeed, if thegovernment limited its activities to those within the powers granted inArticle I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution, campaigns would be of significantlyless interest to lobbyists.

The bottom line with campaign finance reform is that the "reformers" wantelections to be the private preserve of the political class. The thing thatthe political class fears most is a well-funded challenger. Indeed, thosewho would shake up the status quo would benefit most by removingcontribution limits. Gene McCarthy shook things up in 1968 with the help ofsix-figure contributions from Stewart Mott and other wealthy liberalopponents of the Vietnam War. Had the 1974 amendments to the FederalElection Campaign Act been in effect then, McCarthy says, there's no way hecould 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 spendinglimits: "The First Amendment denies government the power to determine thatspending 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 collectivelyas associations and political committees -- who must retain control over thequantity and range of debate on public issues in a political campaign." Butthe Court was wrong in upholding contribution limits, as though they aresomehow unrelated to campaign spending. To make campaigns more competitiveand thereby attract more and better candidates for Congress, we need fewercampaign finance laws, not more.