Campaign Finance Reform
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Campaign Finance Reform
Money and politics have always gone hand in hand. During the 2004 presidential election alone, presidential campaign spending topped $1.2 billion. The vast sums of money inherent to American politics have caused many people to clamor for campaign finance reform. After all, they reason, how can a system remain uncorrupt when politicians are indebted to the big money interests that fund their campaigns
Proponents of campaign finance reform have won many victories in the recent past. However, campaign financing as it now stands remains intolerable to many Americans. Under our current system political speech is repressed, reams of regulations make campaigning daunting, and the ability for little-known candidates to compete has all but disappeared. To others, elections are too expensive, and the issue ad extravaganza in 2004 was a disaster not to be repeated. Congress is currently mulling over bills to resolve these problems. What to do with campaign finance reform will be a major issue as we look toward the 2008 election.
Campaign finance reform has a long history. Congress banned corporate and union political donations in Teddy Roosevelt??™s and Harry Truman??™s administrations, respectively. In 1971 Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which allowed unions and corporations to form political action committees (PACs), or segregated money-funds to which individuals could voluntarily contribute. FECA also imposed disclosure requirements for contributions and spending. Its 1974 revision formed the Federal Election Commission, structured a system of public financing for federal elections, and set specific donation limits. Individuals could donate up to $1000 to a candidate; PACs could contribute a maximum of $5000.
Congress revisited FECA in 1979, but this revision left an unintended loophole. Unions, corporations, and individuals could make unlimited (and undisclosed) donations to political parties. On paper this ???soft money??? was for ???party-building activities??? such as get-out-the-vote efforts and voter registration drives. But it soon came to finance ???issue ads.???
According to the Supreme Court??™s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, FECA??™s disclosure requirements and donation limits applied only to ???express advocacy,??? or any ad containing an injunction to vote. In other words, stating ???Vote for . . .??? meant you must fund the ad with ???hard money,??? the $1000 and $5000 capped donations received by candidates. ???Issue ads,??? on the other hand, never asked for votes??”technically. They could describe candidates??™ records, denounce their actions, or quote them, but as long as they avoided the Supreme Court??™s ???magic words,??? issue ads could be funded with soft money.
Soft money remained relatively unimportant for the nexttwo decades. However, in the 1996 election soft money fundraising escalated to unprecedented highs. Millions of unregulated dollars poured into the system. In response, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) was proposed by Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold. After years of debate, it was passed and signed into law in 2002.
The BCRA sought to change everything. It outlawed all soft money donations. It increased the individual donation limits to $2000, though that hardly compensated for the parties??™ $500 million loss in soft money. In addition, knowing soft money donors could still fund their own ads, the BCRA prohibited all issue ads funded with soft money for 60 days before a general election and 30 days prior to a primary election.
The2004 election saw the first implementation of the BCRA. However, despite McCain??™s promises that the BCRA would ???[profit] our political system,??? the 2004 election proved a fiasco for reformers. Soft money donors, prohibited from giving to political parties, funneled their donations into so-called ???527??? groups. These groups, in turn, produced a storm of issue ads, seeping the election in unaccountable and caustic rhetoric. Incumbency also became a greater advantage than ever, as lesser-known candidates could no longer rely on party soft money to boost their campaigns, and the BCRA??™s complicated regulations made compliance difficult for newcomers. The BCRA also raised controversial free speech issues. Although the Supreme Court ruled with a 5-4 majority that the bans on political donations and issue ads are constitutional, many legal scholars disagree, calling them blatant infringements of First Amendment rights. The replacement of a single justice could result in a future reversal.
Seeing these problems, we must ask ourselves: What actions should be taken in regards to the 527s How do we reduce the advantages of incumbency And what fundraising should political parties and candidates be allowed to do To answer these questions we must return to square one. Why did Congress enact campaign finance reform in the first place John McCain answers, ??? . . . campaign contributions from a single source that run to the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are not healthy to a democracy.???
Granted, stopping corruption (or the appearanceof it, as is more commonly argued) is a worthy cause. No one wants politicians to be overly beholden to donors, but proponents of campaign finance reform fail to recognize an important concept: government cannot solveevery problem. As Thomas Sowell wrote in his book, The Vision of the Anointed, ??? . . . there are no ???solutions??™ . . . but only tradeoffs that still leave many desires unfulfilled and much unhappiness in the world.???
The Bible seconds Sowell??™s description. It says strife and injustice will always be with us, ??? . . . for the intent of man??™s heart is evil from his youth.??? Inherently evil men cannot create Heaven on earth. Some problems will always remain, and all we can hope for is a society where the best ???tradeoffs??? are available. Looking at campaign financing with this view, we realize we cannot stop all ???corruption??? or the ???appearance??? of it.
What proponents of campaign finance reform really want is to write laws that make immoral conduct (as they define it) impossible. To accomplish this, they are attempting to stop the flow of money, thinking that money is the cause of corruption. They misunderstand the root of the problem. Money in and of itself is not evil. Man is. Politicians will always besusceptible to improper influences, whether or not the money is in easy reach. Besides that, men will always find a way to get money into the system. In 2004 the money unable to reach the candidates went to the 527s. Should Congress attempt to stifle them, the money will simply go elsewhere. It cannot be stopped without unreasonably curtailing individual freedoms.
Recognizing this, our response should be straightforward. Stopping the money flow through reasonable means cannot curb the appearance of corruption, but putting transactions out in the open will. In place of reams of campaign finance law, we need only one regulation: all candidates must publicly disclose donations within 24 hours of receiving them. This regulation would give the public theinformation it needs to hold politicians accountable for their sources of money. Donation limits and issue ad regulations would be repealed, removing dangerous Constitutional threats and a host of complicated laws. And incumbents would no longer enjoy an overwhelming advantage over lesser-known challengers, as political newcomers would be able to use both party soft money and the backing of wealthy patrons.
This simplified approach to campaign finance reform ???solves??? all the problems that can solved. Constitutional rights are no longer repressed, mountains of regulations do not daunt would-be participants, and challengers can obtain enough funding to level the playing field. Although concerns about big money interests, issue ads, and expensive elections will not disappear with this approach, we must remember there are no solutions??”only tradeoffs.