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Jewish World Review July 24, 2001 / 4 Menachem-Av, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Kill the campaign reform illusion -- THE House appears to have killed so-called campaign reform. Despite all of the wailing, legislators did the right thing. Campaign reform is an illusion which would only rearrange who has political influence.

The most important fallacy of the entire debate is that "there is too much money in the political process," as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) recently charged.

Apparently he thinks his job is unimportant. Last year, some $4 billion was devoted to elections, from president to city councilman. That's about $14.30 per person, enough to buy every American a CD, or a couple of fast-food meals. Surely, choosing the nation's political leaders warrants spending at least that much - and, indeed, much more.

Political debate today is impoverished, but not by too much spending. Of course, any amount of money can be misspent. There's no evidence, however, that money is "corrupting" politics. Rather, people like Rep. Lewis apparently don't like who spends the cash: "More than 90 percent of these big [soft money] contributions come from corporations and wealthy individuals whose interests are often at odds with those of average Americans."

Similarly, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) contend that soft-money contributions bar passage of "legislation enjoying strong public support across the political spectrum - real HMO reform; prescription drug coverage for seniors; common-sense gun-safety measures; tort reform; new tools to combat hate crimes."

Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, agrees: "Big money" prevents health-care reform, protects polluters, blocks creation of a prescription drug benefit program and "keeps needed government programs for low- and middle-income Americans from being adequately financed."

She also believes that "Big money shuts young people and people of color out of the system." However, every one of these policies is backed by a special interest, and every special interest represents the interest of a special group of Americans. None has a higher claim than any other to participate in the political process. Of course, many "special interests" advocate policies which hurt the public. But that is no less the case for campaign finance advocates who loudly proclaim their affinity for the poor.

Indeed, they are the worst political phonies, angrily decried by Rep. Lewis. For instance, liberal special interests routinely push to provide subsidies to big exporters, impair health care through government control, raise food prices through agricultural subsidies, hike clothing costs through protectionism, and impede business formation through regulation.

The problem of special interests actually results from those legislators who are responsible for a mammoth federal regime that attracts favor-seekers of all sorts. If politicians run the economy, politicians will sell policy. That is the essential truth that makes a mockery of any alleged "campaign reform."

None of the proposed measures, whether Shays-Meehan or a mushy substitute, will clean up politics. Limiting issue ads would be particularly outrageous. They are a powerful means of attacking incumbents and injecting serious arguments into campaigns. No wonder Rep. Lewis calls them "phony." The hypocrisy is breathtaking: How often do candidates, especially incumbents, run serious ads addressing serious issues in serious ways? Moreover, the quintessential purpose of the First Amendment is to protect political speech, like issue ads. To forbid such speech when it most matters, before an election, would reduce the Constitution's most basic protections to a nullity.

Moreover, banning soft money wouldn't eliminate special interest influence. It would rearrange who has influence. Labor unions, which can deploy people on the street or in phone banks, would gain an advantage. Yet their agenda is just as selfish as that of corporate America. We should have learned from the 1974 "reforms."

Stringent limits on individual donations led to PACs, soft money and self-financing by millionaires. The problem in 1972 was not big contributions, but secret cash contributions. In fact, large donors aided grass roots candidates like George McGovern. Indeed, "campaign reform" appears to be yet another effort to stultify the political process. Incumbents already have enormous advantages; limiting contributions and ads would make it even tougher for challengers. So-called reform would also solidify the influence of existing elites. Ban ads, and newspapers and television will still run stories and editorialize. Ban contributions, and celebrities will still provide endorsements.

Money is the most important means through which most people can participate in politics.

Rep. Lewis is right that many Americans have been "disenfranchised by our current system." Ms. Brazile is right about the feeling of alienation held by many youth and minorities. But it's not a problem of too much money. It's a problem of an entrenched political class that has turned the U.S. economy into the largest special-interest honey pot in world history. The only way to clean up politics is to restrict the favors that candidates can hand out after they take office.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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