Open The System, Don't Close It
By Edward H. Crane
Contributions from foreign nationals to federal election campaigns or political parties should be against the law. For non-resident foreigners they already are and those laws should be enforced. While we're at it, and so as not to be hypocritical, let's abolish the National Endowment for Democracy, which uses U.S. taxpayers' money to influence foreign elections all over the world.
As for the rest of the political class agenda on campaign finance reform, it's designed to chill political debate, close campaigns to all but full-time political activists, and deny information to the American people. The "loopholes" Common Cause and its liberal allies on this issue always are talking about can be summed up in two words: First Amendment.
Netizens in particular should be sensitive to political types out to control information and content. (Not content, you say? Consider that FCC information czar Reed Hundt has suggested that by forcing candidates into "free" television time to speak to the American people the government could ban "negative" campaigning.) Information in a free society should never be limited by the government. But that is exactly what limits on campaign contributions and expenditures inherently do.
One reason the media has been sympathetic to limits on political expression under the guise of campaign finance reform is that it enhances their role as gatekeeper of such information. And what about the media? Is it wrong that Katherine Graham, Rush Limbaugh, and Garry Trudeau can shower millions of dollars of publicity on political candidates and causes they support? Of course not -- not in a free society. Then why in the world should those of us who are not in the media be limited (severely limited) in what we can spend to promote ideas in which we believe? The First Amendment was not written to protect only those who work in the media, but all Americans: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."
Most of the initiatives the reform activists support, from limiting the amount of time in which a candidate can solicit funds to limiting how much money he or she can raise or spend to channeling campaign speech into government-controlled "free" electronic media outlets has the effect of protecting incumbents and harming challengers. And yet by overwhelming margins the American people prefer legislatures populated by citizens legislators rather than career politicians. It is interesting to note that in 1994 every Senate challenger who spent less than the supposedly voluntary limits imposed by the McCain-Feingold bill lost, and every incumbent who spent less than the ceiling won. And it is not coincidental that Common Cause opposes term limits.
Term limits are, in fact, the best possible campaign finance reform.
It is also true that proponents of contribution and spending limits have arbitrarily deemed current levels of spending on political campaigns to be "obscene." Oh, really? By what standard? In 1994, total combined spending for every political race in the nation -- from dog catcher to president -- amounted to just one-twentieth of one percent of GDP. The enormous impact of politics on the economy (not to mention our pocketbooks) would seem to merit substantially higher levels of spending. Total spending on congressional campaigns during the 1994 election cycle amounted to $724 million. That year annual sales of the Barbie Doll line came to $1 billion. It is another Common Cause myth that we're spending too much on campaigns in America. In any event, we don't want politicians making that decision for us.
Efforts to force candidates into public funding through various incentives and disincentive are also ill-conceived. The paltry 13 percent of Americans who checked "Yes" on the president campaign fund on their income tax returns shows we don't want taxpayer funding of elections. And well we shouldn't. In a free society people are not forced to give their money to support political activity they would otherwise not support. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."
Studies show conclusively that legislators vote as they vote for three primary reasons: ideology, constituent interests, and party discipline. Contrary to the sometimes hysterical voices of "reform," sources of campaign contributions are usually not a factor. Politicians do spend far too much time raising money, but that is simply due to the absurdly low contribution limits now in place.
We should abolish contribution limits and require full, on-line disclosure of the source of contributions. That would open up the political process, end the absurd 95 percent re-election rate of incumbents, while preserving our liberties. We must not turn the political process over to the political class. As former Chief Justice Warren Burger wisely wrote, "There are many prices we pay for freedoms secured by the First Amendment; the risk of undue influence is one of them, confirming what we have long known: Freedom is hazardous, but some restraints are worse."
Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
Americans Want Campaign Spending Limits
By Ann McBride
As the new 105th Congress prepares to convene in January, this country faces an extraordinary opportunity to win passage of historic campaign reform.
For many years, some political observers said that there needed to be a scandal of major proportions to finally achieve true campaign finance reform.
The 1996 elections provided such a scandal. After all is said and done, the cost of elections in 1996 -- presidential and congressional elections, not even counting the vast cost of state and local campaigns -- is expected to reach an astonishing $2 billion.
Just as the Watergate scandal produced a historic wave of political reforms, the cost of the 1996 elections have the potential to produce real change in 1997. We have an enormous stake in achieving reform in the upcoming Congress.
In the 1996 presidential campaign, huge soft money contributions flowed to both political parties.
Revelations late in the campaign that some of these soft money contributions came from foreign-related sources was like a match on a dry forest, igniting a firestorm of attention to campaign finance abuses.
In the 1996 elections, soft money, an unfortunately benign term for what often is also called "sewer money," was given to political parties in record-breaking amounts from powerful corporations, the tobacco lobby, gambling interests, labor unions, Hollywood bigwigs, the insurance industry and others. These contributions, in amounts of $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 and even more, were not given for the purpose of good government. They were given to gain access and influence.
In addition, a near-record 95 percent of incumbents were re-elected in congressional races in 1996, once again showing that in the vast majority of cases, we simply don't have real elections in this country. The 1996 elections showed that because of the influence of big money, there is not a Democratic Party or a Republican Party, but simply one powerful incumbent party. House incumbents received four times as much money as their challengers, and six times as much political action committee (PAC) money. In four out of five House races, an incumbent ran unopposed or against a financially noncompetitive challenger, meaning that the challenger wasn't able to raise even half of the funds that the incumbent did.
But the wretched excesses of the 1996 elections provide a major impetus for reform.
Never have the American people been so concerned, outraged and ready for reform of our political system. When given the choice in the 1996 elections, citizens in this country voted decidedly for campaign reform. In California, Colorado and Maine, for example, an overwhelming majority of voters approved sweeping reform initiatives that will dramatically strengthen campaign laws for state races.
A strong bipartisan coalition in Congress is ready to take that momentum and use it to make campaign reform a reality nationwide. The coalition is led by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) in the Senate, and Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) in the House. Their reform efforts are targeted at building bipartisan support in Congress to address the campaign finance abuses that have so outraged the American people.
These congressional reformers pushed bipartisan legislation in the 104th Congress, and their bill received a majority vote in the Senate last summer. But despite strong support for the bill, it was narrowly killed by an obstructionist filibuster. The members of the bipartisan coalition have announced that they will keep fighting for reform when the 105th Congress convenes in 1997.
We face a tough, but winnable, battle ahead. Once the prospects for campaign reform become real -- as they are now -- the opposition becomes mobilized to try and stop it. Perennial reform foe Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) already has announced that he intends to try to kill reform in the 105th Congress. The powerful special interests in Washington also will try every trick in the book to protect the special advantage they now enjoy.
But this issue will not be won in Washington. It's only going to be won by citizens insisting -- demanding -- that Congress act to clean up the corrupt system in Washington.
We cannot continue to accept the corrupt system in Washington. We cannot accept a political system where our elected leaders are challenger-proof and practice risk-free politics. We cannot accept a system in which our public dialogue is dominated by television sound bytes and 30-second political ads. We cannot accept a system where our citizens are abandoning the ballot box and walking away in droves.
McBride is president of Common Cause, a 250,000-member citizens lobby is dedicated to changing the campaign finance system in Washington.