Let's face it: both parties are full of hypocrites
IT'S HARD TO KNOW who are the worse hypocrites these days. Is it the Democrats, who pretend to want to limit campaign contributions while their party does everything it can to skirt current laws? Or the Republicans, who won't admit to the American public what they know to be true -- that limits never work because clever people will always find ways around them?
Last week, for example, The Washington Post reported that the Democratic National Committee has engaged in an unprecedented effort to swap funds with its state affiliates in order to avoid federal spending limits. It traded more than $1 million in contributions from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals that are not supposed to be used for federal candidates in return for a nearly equal amount of cash that can be used for congressional races. The maneuver may be legal (just barely), but it certainly flies in the face of Democrat rhetoric about the importance of limiting both contributions and spending.
Meanwhile, the Republican House leadership -- scared by the political impact of such rhetoric -- agreed to schedule a vote on so-called campaign finance reform next month even though most Republican members know the pending legislation is a fraud.
Campaign finance reform reminds me of the story of the cat who catches the baby bird in its mouth as it falls from the nest. "If it were not for me, great evil would have befallen you," says the cat. "Is that why you put me in your mouth?" asks the bird.
It's not in the nature of politicians to want to limit their ability to raise and spend money on their own campaigns. Their only real interest is in limiting their opponents' chances to do the same. So, the Democrats favor reform that they believe will put Republicans at a competitive disadvantage -- for example, limiting contributions from wealthy individuals and corporate political action committees -- while the Republicans try to limit the money unions can spend. Meanwhile, fund-raisers from both parties work behind the scene to game the system, as Clinton operatives did so well during the last presidential election.
Why not just let candidates raise and spend as much as they can, so long as the public knows exactly where the money comes from and how it is spent? Do-gooder outfits like Common Cause complain that money corrupts politics, but that is nonsense. Why should it be OK for me to promote my political values by giving Common Cause a million dollars but be illegal for me to give even a fraction of that amount to a candidate who shares those same values?
The Supreme Court has already ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of individual candidates to spend as much of their own money on their political campaigns as they choose, and rightly so. But the effect of this ruling, coupled with limiting the amount individuals can contribute to others who run for office, has been to stack the deck in favor of independently wealthy candidates who can afford to finance their own campaigns.
When I ran for the U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1986, one of my primary opponents was a wealthy businessman who outspent me by more than 2-to-1, much of it his own money. I couldn't match his personal resources yet had to turn down generous individuals who would have liked to support my candidacy with larger contributions than the law allowed. I remember returning one $10,000 check from a man who had never given to a political candidate before but believed I would make a good senator. He had no agenda -- just a dose of political idealism, which the law wouldn't allow him to express as he saw fit.
Voter contact is expensive. As a candidate running even in a relatively small state, there was no way I could meet or talk individually with every potential voter. If I hoped to persuade voters to support me, I had to get my message out through television and radio ads and by sending individual letters to registered voters. But I needed to raise money -- lots of it -- from other people to pay for commercials and postage.
Reformers hope that by limiting campaign contributions, candidates will be less
beholden to special interests. But by forcing candidates to raise money in ever smaller
increments, the reformers simply insure that candidates will spend even more time
devoted to raising the necessary funds to run for office. But like the bird in the cat's
mouth, I don't trust campaign finance reform that promises to protect political liberty by
threatening to swallow
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