A Well Endowed Democracy

This article originally appeared on National Review Online, April 4, 2000.

Forget whether or not Al Gore is a "fit messenger" on campaign financereform. Forget his fateful grasp of what constitutes "controlling legalauthority." Forget the issue of poverty-pledged monks doling out cash fromtheir sedate monasteries in California. Forget Al Gore's iced tea inducedpotty breaks that caused him to miss significant parts of campaign meetingswhere legally questionable material may have been discussed. Forget thehordes of foreign donors who have fled the country to escape beingquestioned or indicted and convicted like Maria Hsia. None of thisultimately matters.

What does matter is that our current system of campaign financing isterribly broken and that the future of our Democracy may well rest on itsrepair. With Democracy in the balance, I don’t care if Al Gore or Al Caponecomes forward with a workable repair — what matters is that a solution befound, and be found quickly. Unfortunately, Al Gore's newly releasedcampaign finance plan, while grand in its design, will only further damageour already teetering system.

Gore's proposal begins with the constitutionally-challenged "reform" ideafound at the center of every major campaign reform legislation considered(and rejected) to date: a ban on soft money. Because the criticisms ofbanning soft money are well documented elsewhere, I will merely say that theSupreme Court has repeatedly rejected bans on soft money and has struck downany and all restrictions on spending that are not directly related to theelection or defeat of a particular candidate. In short, the first amendmentprotects the rights of individuals to spend their money to further theirideals as long as that money is tied to the issues and not to the electionor defeat of the candidate that espouses and defends those ideals.

The more troubling aspect of Gore's proposal is his desire to confiscatepublic airways to "encourage" broadcasters to "voluntarily" provide freeair-time to all candidates seeking federal office and to supplement thisfree-air time with additional time for those candidates targeted by issueads. This infringement (through strong arm tactics) on the private propertyrights of broadcasters is troubling enough — but one wonders what rules willbe established to determine who qualifies for the free time, what willqualify as "issue advertising" and what level of attack from specialinterests will qualify for the bonus of even more "free" air time to counterthe constitutionally protected speech of others.

The answer to this and many other questions may lie in the more novel aspectof Gore's new proposal — the establishment of a Democracy Endowment.According to Gore, the Democracy Endowment would be a privately fundedendowment established to finance the campaigns of any candidate that agreedto voluntarily limit his or her spending to the amount made availablethrough the Endowment. Unfortunately, I fear this endowment would do fordemocracy what the National Endowment for the Arts has done for artisticexpression — but instead of making a mockery of art through urine stainedcrosses or chocolate clad dancers, this endowment would make a mockery ofthe constitution by gutting the first and fifth amendments.

According to Gore, the Democracy Endowment would be funded through 100percent deductible contributions from private individuals and organizations.The Endowment would need to raise $7.1 billion over the next seven years ata cost to the federal government of $2.13 billion (in lost tax revenue). Theinterest earned from the endowment would then be used to fund the biannualcosts of congressional campaigns. Interestingly, if the Endowment fails toattract its targeted $7.1 billion (an amount in excess of all spending onCongressional campaigns over the last decade combined), Gore plans tooutright confiscate airtime from private television and radio broadcastersto make up the difference. On this point, Gore gets extra credit forhonesty.

While touted as a "public-private" partnership, the only private part of theGore proposal is it's financing (which will never materialize). In order tohave the powers necessary to confiscate private airtime and to be able todesign, monitor and enforce a new campaign-spending scheme, the Endowmentwould have to be deputized as another powerful agency of the Federalgovernment.

In the end, it would be unlikely that the Democracy Endowment would be ableto raise the targeted amount and thus it would need to confiscate inordinateamounts of airtime from television and radio. The burden of this task, andthe likely outcry from cash-strapped broadcasters carrying copies of theFifth Amendment would ultimately lead the Endowment to seek direct taxpayersupport for its "worthy" cause. The back door of public funding, having beenopened through the enticing rhetoric of a "voluntary" and "private"endowment, would have been finally entered. Public funding would be here tostay.

It is without question that the Democracy Endowment in its ultimate form,much like the public funding of Presidential campaigns, would furtherentrench the two party system and give greater advantage to incumbents. Itwould be likely to overfund less deserving candidates and underfund moreneedy candidates with lower name recognition and more complex views.Al Gore is correct on one point — our Democracy needs well-endowedcampaigns. Unfortunately, this does not mean a single, oversized,government-run entity with new police powers, handing out meager amounts ofcash based on some census formula. Instead, we need to lift the restrictionson current campaigns and allow larger donations to flow into our electoralsystem. While this may seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated, it isburdensome campaign restrictions that have led to the numerous and welldocumented outrages of the past few election cycles and are at the core ofthe demise of our campaign financing system.

In fact, it is the ridiculously low donation limits that force candidates tostretch campaign laws in an effort to fill ten-foot deep campaign coffersone spoonful at a time. It is low limits that cause candidates to spend aninordinate amount of time on the rubber chicken "fundraising circuit" --where being "all things to all people" and doling out promises to wealthyinterests on both sides of almost every issue is rewarded handsomely. Thisneed to raise funds in such small increments prolongs the campaign seasonand discourages good candidates from seeking federal office. No wondervoters are turned off and are tuning out in increasing numbers.

Instead of addressing this fundamental problem, Al Gore, George W. and theMcCain cabal continue to seek the "reform" moniker by proposing new andburdensome campaign restrictions, which all but obliterate the firstamendment. Real campaign reform is simple: remove (or at least significantlyincrease) donor limits and require immediate and full disclosure of thesource of all donations. This simple reform will lead to well endowedcampaigns, will increase the volume and quality of the information providedto voters and will ultimately lead to an improved democracy.

Derrick A. Max

Derrick A. Max is director of government affairs for the Cato Institute.