Campaign Finance Reform - A Pig in the Poke
Now that the first election conducted under the new campaign finance laws has come and gone, a little post-mortem is in order. By any objective standard, it has been an abject failure.
Ostensibly, campaign finance reform (CFR) was supposed to deliver us from the evil of the "special interests" and their "soft money", (contributions that can't be given or spent directly on behalf of a candidate, like "hard" dollars can). We were told that they had hijacked our political system.
We were told that CFR (as they envisioned it) was a necessary trade-off tighter restrictions on free speech in exchange for a reduction of the influence of money in the political process.
So, how did it turn out? For the first time ever, both major party candidates for President declined to accept public financing, (and the contribution limits that would come with it). A new category of political committees, called 527's, (named after the section of the tax code that regulates them), sprung up like weeds to accept and spend the "soft money" that could no longer go to the parties. Many were created before the reform bill even passed, in many cases by some of the same politicians who were supporting it.
In other words, the bill ignored reality. Money in politics is like water flowing downhill. Erect barriers if you wish only to slightly alter its course as it flows to its ultimate destination. They don't say money is the "mother's milk" of politics for nothing. They say it because it's true. The Supreme Court recognized such in 1976 with its decision in Buckley vs. Valeo, stating essentially that, in politics, money equals speech€¦(and we've got that little thing called the First Amendment).
By attacking "soft money", CFR essentially targeted funds which were raised and spent by associations of average Americans seeking to get involved in the political process. In other words, "special interests".
Do you want to know who the special interests are? Look in the mirror. Look at your neighbor across the street. Look at your friend who owns a small business and joined an independent business group or your parents or grandparents in AARP. In essence, when they attack "special interests", they are attacking us all.
And what needed reforming to begin with? Did voters need to be protected from the occasion that a political party might attempt to sway their votes by airing too many political ads on TV? Or from political ads whose content some deem too "negative"?
While it is true that political campaigns have raised and spent greater and greater sums of money in each succeeding election, a little perspective is in order. Think about how much is spent each year advertising soft drinks. How about advertising for pick-ups or pharmaceuticals or just Viagra? Isn't politics at least that important?
Also consider that, thanks to the Internet, campaigns will (and now do) have a greater focus on individual volunteers and donors. And with the television audience further fracturing every year thanks to cable, more campaigns will turn to the net, which is a cheaper and more level playing field.
Further, the advent of the blogosphere (and its phenomenal growth) has opened a whole new avenue towards greater political information and participation. This free flow of information also makes it harder to hide just what these "reformers" are up to a reality that's not lost on them. Witness the recent threats of regulation made against the blogs themselves by the F.E.C. and the usual suspects in the reform crowd.
Ironically, CFR has led to some positive results, although wholly unintended by its architects. That being the vast increase in "hard" dollars raised by both major political parties. A study done by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy showed a surge in giving by individual donors to both parties that more than replaced the old "soft money".
The Democrat National Committee tripled its individual donor contributions from $111 million to $356 million. And the Republican National Committee went from $186 million to $344 Million. In other words, both parties got good at getting "a little bit from a lot of people".
However, the negatives are still there. State political party involvement in congressional elections declined. Local party committees (almost universally staffed by part-time volunteers) are surrounded with uncertainty as to just what the law is and how it affects them.
Independent groups of Americans looking to get involved in the process face even more problems. The law's expansive definition of "coordination" could be interpreted as preventing such groups from even using the same vendors as candidates or parties, or even preventing communications involving purely legislative issues that might happen to name an elected official, if done so within sixty days of an election.
One local party official commented that the law was "nothing but an attempt by politicians to make criminals out of ordinary people". Here, here. Citizen groups should be free to work with their elected officials on public policy issues without fear of possible criminal violation of federal election laws.
The plain truth is that the real motivation behind this "reform" was to restrict who could say what when, where, how and how often. And now they're coming back for round two with even more restrictions and prohibitions all in the name of "plugging leaks" that have sprung in the original version.
Since, as mentioned, water runs downhill, we can reasonably expect similar results from further "reform". In other words, there's no end to this cycle. A reformers job is never done. How convenient, a perennial whipping boy for our "maverick" politicians, with the liberal media happily in tow.
If the reformers truly want to lessen the impact and prevalence of "big money" and "special interests" in politics, they would do a better job by trying to lessen the impact of "big government" on the daily lives of average Americans.
Campaign finance reform was truly a pig in a poke. In the end, it failed to achieve its goals and left us to suffer with all of its faults. Instead of putting lipstick on this pig and dressing it up, it should be sent off to the slaughterhouse where it belongs.