The Art of Policy April 2005

Incumbent-Protection Acts

Campaign-finance reform—an explanation

We have held our first cleaned-up national elections under the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The act banned "soft money"—money previously exempt from federal campaign-contribution limits. Individuals and organizations can no longer make unlimited donations to political parties for "party-building activities." Such activities might have included producing vituperative TV ads calling a decorated-war-hero senator a goldbrick, or sponsoring hysterical Web sites accusing the president's father of being King Faisal's fifth wife.

Under our freshly purified electoral system individuals and organizations had to do that themselves. They used 527 committees, named after a section of the U.S. tax code that allows tax-free political advocacy as long as it doesn't go too far and, well, advocate a politician. One suspects that some of the 527s were cheating.

This will be fixed soon. The usual suspects behind campaign reform have introduced legislation to eliminate the 527 version of soft money. Two congressmen have sued the Federal Election Commission for failing to regulate 527s. And the FEC itself has imposed restrictions on 527s beginning this year.

Further laws and lawsuits will be needed to regulate the political advocacy of slovenly, loudmouthed leftist filmmakers, wild-eyed evangelicals raving from pulpits, and you and me. Politics must be freed from the corruption of money.

We have a ways to go. Last year, for the first time, victorious campaigns for the House cost an average of more than $1 million. Outlays for victorious Senate campaigns rose by 47 percent. Total spending on presidential, Senate, and House races was almost $4 billion, versus approximately $3 billion in 2000, before McCain-Feingold.

Thus McCain-Feingold has not been a success. Unless it has. Americans are 33 percent more politically involved than they were four years ago, if we measure involvement in dollars. And an extra billion in campaign funds raised despite onerous new restrictions is an example of the ingenuity and flexibility that make our democracy successful, even if it is corrupted by money.

The word "corruption" comes from the Latin rumpere, "to break." Anyone who has experienced the politics of a volunteer board, a social club, or a college English department knows that politics is cracked and fractured, money be damned. Humbugs and Hitlers say politics makes people whole.

Is there too much money in politics? There are some 209 million Americans of voting age. The 2004 presidential campaigns spent about $1.2 billion. Would you sell your vote for $5.74? (Well, last year, yes—if it would have made the candidates go away.)

Do the possessors of money wield too much influence? They do at the mall, doubtless likewise in politics. Yet telecommunications companies, some of America's richest corporations, are pestered by the government while agriculture—making up less than 1.5 percent of GDP—is amply subsidized.

It would take a Bill Clinton's worth of political knowledge to understand how this policy results from campaign corruption. Interestingly, it's a holdover Clinton appointee, Bradley A. Smith, who is the nation's most eloquent critic of campaign reform. More interestingly, Smith is a member of the Federal Election Commission. He believes that all restrictions on campaign giving and spending are violations of the First Amendment. Not a mere free-speech nut, Smith also believes that spending restrictions give too much power to the media. Smith called the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 an "Incumbent Protection Act," because it limited big-giver seed money for unknown candidates. (In Washington they say that to run for office you need "a Rolex or a Rolodex.") Smith is even dubious about the disclosure of campaign contributions. He cites the 1958 Supreme Court ruling, in NAACP v. Alabama, that the anonymity of donors to a cause is protected by the First Amendment. Bradley Smith thinks we should ignore who gives what to whom and judge candidates by their ideals, ideas, and actions.

If that would help. The perpetuation of slavery, the exile and extermination of American Indians, and the passage of Jim Crow laws weren't carried out at the bidding of a few malefactors of great wealth. These policies had support among ordinary voters—the individual small-donor types that McCain-Feingold is supposed to encourage. And indeed, the number of individual donors to the populist Democratic Party rose nearly sevenfold in the 2004 election cycle. Of course, Democrats are all good, progressive people nowadays. So we should just restrict campaign contributions from bad, regressive special interests.

We've been trying since 1757, when George Washington, running for the Virginia House of Burgesses, was criticized for serving a quart and a half of liquor to each voter. Under progressive Democratic administrations campaign-finance-reform acts were passed in 1939, 1943, 1947, and 1967. But wait. Under selfish, special-interest-dominated Republican administrations campaign-finance-reform acts were passed in 1883, 1907, 1910, 1911, 1925, 1971, 1974, and 2002. No less a mossback than Barry Goldwater once co-sponsored a bill to cap donations by political-action committees.

Neither liberal nor conservative politicians can resist the temptation to stand as mighty sequoias of rectitude amid the lowly underbrush of fundraising. But, says the political strategist Ralph Reed, "money is like water down the side of the mountain. It will find a way to get around the trees."

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