April 9, 2001
"Campaign Finance Reform" Serves Entrenched Interests in Washington
Last week the Senate narrowly passed the highly publicized McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. I certainly understand that many Americans are tired of the corruption in Washington, where special interest lobbies pursue their agendas at the expense (literally) of the nation's taxpayers. Everyone knows that politicians use federal spending to reward lobbies, certain constituencies, and favored individuals. However, we must recognize that the McCain bill places restrictions only on individuals, not politicians. Politicians will continue to tax and spend, meaning they will continue to punish some productive Americans while rewarding others with federal largesse. The same vested special interests will not go away, and the same influence peddling will happen every day on Capitol Hill. The reason is very simple: when the federal government redistributes trillions of dollars from some Americans to others, countless special interests inevitably will fight for the money. The rise in corruption in Washington simply mirrors the rise in federal spending. The problem is not with campaigns, but rather with the steady shift from a relatively limited federal government to a virtually socialist system intent on huge redistributions of wealth.
We cannot forget that the Constitution grants Congress only limited enumerated powers, and no authority to regulate campaigns is provided. In fact, Article II expressly authorizes the regulation of elections, so the omission of any mention of campaigns is glaring. Questions have been raised about the constitutionality of campaign finance legislation based on the First amendment, but few seem to realize that Congress clearly lacks the constitutional power to enact such legislation.
Constitutional questions aside, the McCain bill simply will help entrenched powers retain their stranglehold on Washington. Incumbent politicians benefit when challengers cannot spend the amounts needed to unseat them. Name recognition and incumbency are huge advantages in politics. Because contributions by individuals are limited, a challenger must find hundreds or thousands of donors to support a campaign. The incumbent can rely on a much larger base of people. This presents a tremendous obstacle for virtually any challenger candidate who lacks name recognition and elite social contacts. As a result, ordinary Americans rarely bother to run for office. Perversely, very rich Americans are more likely to enter politics because of federal limits on individual donors. Their private wealth frees them from the hard work of raising $1,000 from thousands of individuals. When the challenger spends as much as the incumbent, re-election rates are much lower. So wealthy candidates match the incumbent's spending and often succeed in winning.
The liberal mainstream media also benefit from campaign finance restrictions. When lobbies and individuals are limited in what they can give to campaigns and political parties, they instead will spend money on advertisements during election seasons. Media outlets relish the prospect of increased ad revenue. Although the McCain bill places restrictions just prior to elections on issue ads, which only implicitly support one party or candidate, the media know they will sell even more ads before the restriction period starts. Since the issue ad restrictions raise First amendment questions, the media also know that the Supreme Court likely will forbid such restrictions as unconstitutional. The end result is that mainstream media organizations will have more money and influence than ever before. The media will impact the outcomes of elections even more than they do today.
Grass roots organizations and third-party candidates especially suffer when contributions are limited. Such groups are prohibited from raising needed seed money from sympathetic wealthy donors interested in funding a new political movement. Millions of voters might be attracted to a third party, but they lose interest when their candidate garners very little publicity or is not on the ballot. It is virtually impossible for grass roots campaigns and new parties to match the established parties $1,000 at a time.
We need to get money out of government. Only then will money not be important in politics. Campaign finance laws will not make politicians more ethical, but they will make it harder for average Americans to influence Washington.