2008 a “Last Hurrah” for campaign-finance reform?

posted at 8:52 am on March 5, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

John Lott and Brad Smith hope that this presidential cycle drives a stake in the heart of public financing for national elections. Their column in the Wall Street Journal argues that the public-financing system hasn’t bought any cleaner campaigns or candidates, and that it acts more as an incumbency-protection program. The possible rejection of the program by two of its biggest boosters would provide an ironic end to a system that did more to promote lawyers than clean politics:

Is 2008 the last hurrah for public — that is, taxpayer — financing of presidential campaigns? Since 1976, taxpayers have shelled out about $3 billion in current dollars to pay for presidential campaigns. That includes campaigns by John Hagelin, Lyndon LaRouche, Lenora Fulani, Ralph Nader, Sen. Alan Cranston, Milton Schaap, Ruben Askew, and other also-rans. Funds have also paid for balloon drops at the party’s conventions, negative TV ads, robocalls and more.

But this year, most leading presidential contenders refused to take the public subsidy — and accompanying spending limits — during the primaries. One exception has been Sen. John McCain. But faced with certain campaign realities, he too is now looking for a way out and is arguing that he has a constitutional right to withdraw from the public funding system for the primaries and, instead, rely on private money. Sen. Barack Obama said last year that he would accept taxpayer financing in the general election if the Republican nominee did too, but he has backed away from that promise.

All this is happening despite the fact that Republicans are nominating their champion of campaign finance reform, Mr. McCain, and a year ago Mr. Obama was lauded in the headlines and media coverage for his dedication to saving public financing of presidential campaigns.

Antonin Scalia noted in a decision that campaign contributions were like rushing water; eventually, it finds its own path. The efforts of over thirty years of campaign-finance reform, including public financing, has not changed the power and influence of money in politics. Instead, it has almost completely eliminated accountability for its use, as ever-increasing regulation pushed the money away from candidates and parties and towards shadowy organizations that provide deniability to the politicians.

We could outlaw all third-party activities in politics, but that presents two problems. Lott and Smith address the first, which is that organizations like unions and lobbying groups could simply start producing newspapers and radio stations themselves, as the NRA does already. The second related problem is a small item called the First Amendment. It promises that Congress will not pass laws interfering with political speech, which campaign-finance reformers seem to find inconvenient at times. We now have a situation where political activists cannot buy TV ads criticizing politicians with 60 days of an election, but they can burn the flag and dance naked on its ashes instead.

Public financing has no place in a free nation. Public subsidies take taxes from citizens and redistribute the funds to politicians at least half of the citizens don’t support at all. If taken in the wrong direction, it provides the government a powerful way to ensure the propagation of their preferred establishment. The BCRA itself acts to protect incumbents with its advertising restrictions, which demonstrates exactly why the government should have as little to do with restricting speech and contributions as possible while protecting the public from corruption.

The answer is that the entire campaign-finance reform structure should be scrapped, along with all of the tax-free statuses for political organizations. Eliminate tax incentives for 527s and the like and demand immediate and full disclosure of monies going to political parties and candidates instead. That will force accountability to where it belongs and make the candidates and parties responsible for their messaging. If nothing else, it’s worth the same try we’ve given the top-down, Byzantine bureaucratic system over the last 30+ years.


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I believe McCain’s heart was in the right place when he pushed for this junk. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson, & he’ll push for it’s repeal when he’s President.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 8:55 AM

Aren’t you sick and tired of McCain and his selfish twisted stupid “maverick” moves?

I urge the RNC to look for a younger, REAL Conservative candidate for the next elections.

Enough of McCain and his likes, i.e. Lindsey Graham, for example.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 8:58 AM

it acts more as an incumbency-protection program

As Ann Coulter points out below, it’s not just public finance, it’s federal campaign-finance laws in general. Not only does it protect incumbents, it gives the media tremendous power in picking the nominees.

Ann Coulter
How to Keep Reagan Out of Office

TheBigOldDog on March 5, 2008 at 8:59 AM

I urge the RNC to look for a younger, REAL Conservative candidate for the next elections.

If there is anyone like that out there, they are doing the real smart thing right now. Namely, staying the hell out of politics!

pilamaye on March 5, 2008 at 9:05 AM

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 8:58 AM

Keep on blathering you pseud.

CFR was based on the need for political accountability, and some mechanism needs to be in place for ensuring that. I’m not saying the present system is helpful – I don’t believe that – but the issue arose in the first place for good reason.

Pax americana on March 5, 2008 at 9:05 AM

Not only does it protect incumbents, it gives the media tremendous power in picking the nominees.

TheBigOldDog on March 5, 2008 at 8:59 AM

This is a shrewd point, and one of the biggest failings of the present system. But how do you ensure that the media does not just become a tool of the highest bidder?

Pax americana on March 5, 2008 at 9:07 AM

Honestly, McAARP has done some really, really stupid things. (I.e., McAARP-Feingold).

God help us. His temper will be his undoing, and maybe ours. (If he ever gets elected, which I seriously, seriously doubt.)

stenwin77 on March 5, 2008 at 9:07 AM

I believe McCain’s heart was in the right place when he pushed for this junk.

Since he joined the campaign finance bandwagon only after he was caught doing favors for Charles Keating, I don’t look at it that way. I see it as his way of blaming the system for his misdeeds.

The Whistler on March 5, 2008 at 9:07 AM

I’m weary of the all-or-nothing “purists” who hate McCain because he’s made some bad calls. If we turn into Canada South by electing Obama & more Dems in Congress, it will be partially the purists’ fault.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:09 AM

his temper will be his undoing

America loved Hothead Harry Truman.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:10 AM

Political speech is a founding tenet of our “Free Speech” clause in the Constitution. McCain definitely created an incumbency protection act, violating the constitution, even though Bush and the Supreme Court saw nothing wrong with it (meet the new boss, same as the old boss).

Politicians don’t want change, if they did they’d really fix Social Security, revamp the entire tax code, promote family core values (mother, father nuclear family) and create new business opportunities by dropping silly environmental and other regulatory restrictions on energy exploration in this country instead of stomping on everyone and taking their wallet and demanding we say thank you sir, may I have another.

Neo on March 5, 2008 at 9:11 AM

CFR was based on the need for political accountability, and some mechanism needs to be in place for ensuring that. I’m not saying the present system is helpful – I don’t believe that – but the issue arose in the first place for good reason.

Pax americana on March 5, 2008 at 9:05 AM

As far as I’m concerned, there should be no restrictions on Freedom of Speech, none whatsoever.

I don’t care about “good reason” or not.

Marxism and Nazism “arose in the first place for good reason.”

Campaign Finance Reform, as far as I’m concerned, is unconstitutional. And those who approved it are in violation of the Constitution of the United Sates.

You should be allowed to spend as much money as you want, on anybody you want without any restrictions, none whatsoever.

I can’t believe this is happening is a country that is claiming to carry the torch of Freedom.

Don’t call yourselves “Americans” then.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 9:16 AM

I’m weary of the all-or-nothing “purists” who hate McCain because he’s made some bad calls. If we turn into Canada South by electing Obama & more Dems in Congress, it will be partially the purists’ fault.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:09 AM

Spot on. But look at it this way -most of the moaners, whingers, defeatists and pseudo-GOPers would be moaning, whinging and spitting bile whatever the circumstance. It’s what miserablists do. That’s why it is pseudo-Republican, because essentially it reveals a Democratic/hard left mindset. An obsession with ideological purity was the rock on which the Soviet Union was built and on which the forces of democracy in Russia were defeated.

Pax americana on March 5, 2008 at 9:17 AM

Don’t call yourselves “Americans” then.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 9:16 AM

All citizens are entitled to call themselves American, thank you very much. Don’t dictate to people who is a citizen or not based on their level of ideological purity.

Pax americana on March 5, 2008 at 9:21 AM

McCain might be able to hold onto his position on CFR for a little while longer now, thanks to Tuesday night’s results.

Hillary’s win guarantees at least one more month and more likely five more months of heated campaigning by Obama and the Clintons, not only in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and a few other remaining primary states, but also stops across the country to woo super-delegates and fundraisers to pull in more cash, which they’re going to burn through between now and August. McCain may have the ability to stand on the sidelines and act holier-than-thou about fundraising as the big $$$ advantage both Clinton and Obama have over him right now dwindles due to the added expense of actually having to campaign all spring and summer.

That doesn’t mean McCain’s right about CFR, or that the current system isn’t a disaster of 527 groups that simply do the bidding of certain candidates outside of the federal laws. But it does mean McCain may not have to be openly hypocritical right away about his beloved law, since the money-on-hand for each party come September figures to be a lot closer to even now (assuming Hillary doesn’t have another Norman Hsu already at work) than it would have been if Obama had swept Ohio and Texas.

jon1979 on March 5, 2008 at 9:43 AM

We now have a situation where political activists cannot buy TV ads criticizing politicians with[in] 60 days of an election

Provisions like this seem to be designed to intentionally preserve incumbency since almost half the country doesn’t decide who they’re voting for until the last few weeks or days.

I, for one, would be happy to see CFR scrapped. I always thought it was a restriction of speech and a colossal waste of time. Thanks for that, by the way, Sen. McCain. As for public financing, I never check the box on my tax return that asks for a $1 contribution because I don’t want my dollar (or 50 cents of it) going to a socialist Democrat.

CP on March 5, 2008 at 9:48 AM

Instead, it has almost completely eliminated accountability for its use, as ever-increasing regulation pushed the money away from candidates and parties and towards shadowy organizations that provide deniability to the politicians.

Absolutely!

The second related problem is a small item called the First Amendment.

The deal killer. Period. End of story.

Great post.

Spirit of 1776 on March 5, 2008 at 9:52 AM

The best campaign finance reform is 24 hour Internet disclosure. Every single donation, be it 1 cent or 1 million dollars, should be disclosed on the the candidates website in addition to their political parties website within 24 hours of receiving the donation. All donations must list the full name of the donor, the zip code of the donor’s home address, the date of the donation, and the amount of the donation.

This puts the information in the hands of whomever wishes to view it, be it voters, press, or anyone else. If you want to give a bunch of money, great. But everyone will know about it so be prepared to defend your giving.

gabriel sutherland on March 5, 2008 at 10:11 AM

Neo on March 5, 2008 at 9:11 AM

Good to see you here. I anticipate an improvement in the level of discourse here.

burt on March 5, 2008 at 10:14 AM

Hear hear!

Don’t call yourselves “Americans” then.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Careful now. As you advocate free speech, you try to trample on it at the same time?

Buy Danish on March 5, 2008 at 10:15 AM

America loved Hothead Harry Truman.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:10 AM

But he didn’t have to get elected for the people to grow to “love” him and he did not win his first election easily. He had to come from behind in 1948 to beat Dewey. At the time his public approval rating was 36%.

TheBigOldDog on March 5, 2008 at 10:18 AM

I believe McCain’s heart was in the right place when he pushed for this junk. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson, & he’ll push for it’s repeal when he’s President.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 8:55 AM

His heart was in the right place but his head was entirely elswhere…

ronsfi on March 5, 2008 at 10:22 AM

name of the donor, the zip code of the donor’s home address, the date of the donation, and the amount of the donation.
gabriel sutherland on March 5, 2008 at 10:11 AM

Great, that’s all we need, some nut case hunting down donors.
Some minority wants to give to the Republican party, and his/her name and zip code is plastered on the internet. Next thing you know, their house is being pelted by Oreo’s.

prepared to defend your giving.

and your life.

right2bright on March 5, 2008 at 10:23 AM

On the other hand, the purists believe they are being offer the choice of being taken to h**l in handbasket fast, vs. being taken to h**l in a hand basket slow.

Not much of a choice.

MarkTheGreat on March 5, 2008 at 10:24 AM

The “need” that CFR was passed to address, was the need of politicians to look like they are doing something, without really doing something.

There are people out there who hate the idea that other people win elections, and they try to find some “evil” to blame for that condition. At present, they blame the fact that they lose on other people spending money. So they try to get money out of elections.

MarkTheGreat on March 5, 2008 at 10:40 AM

How do you keep the media from being the tool of the highest bidder?

That’s easy, make it easy to create media.

The more sources of information available, the harder it gets for one person or group to dominate all media.

It’s always been a myth that money dominates politics. A myth generated by those who can’t stand the fact that the American people have time and time again, rejected their politics.

MarkTheGreat on March 5, 2008 at 10:42 AM

Great, that’s all we need, some nut case hunting down donors.

right2bright on March 5, 2008 at 10:23 AM

This address, zip code information is already available at the FEC for hard money donations over a certain amount. ($300?)

I haven’t heard of anyone being stalked for their donations, unless it was by the media who were after people like Hsu.

Buy Danish on March 5, 2008 at 11:02 AM

Hello Captain! CFR and Term Limits–both necessary to clean up a mess but almost impossible to accomplish cleanly and fairly with today’s conditions.

Secularists have spent the past 40 years taking control of public communication to control thought and shape policy. Schools, media, judiciary, entertainment. Conservatives live with a steady drumbeat of counterculture, largely financed by enemies of our founding principles. We are left with right on our side and little else to fight the good fight.

And then there is Soros:

eaglesdontflock on March 5, 2008 at 12:01 PM

Don’t call yourselves “Americans” then.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Careful now. As you advocate free speech, you try to trample on it at the same time?

Buy Danish on March 5, 2008 at 10:15 AM

“Trample?” Not really. If you read carefully what I wrote, you will notice that I was calling those supporters of restricting Freedom of Speech: Hypocrites.

You can’t tell me that you’re an American while at the same time you don’t believe in the Constitution of the country you claim yours.

Indy Conservative on March 5, 2008 at 12:17 PM

I’m weary of the all-or-nothing “purists” who hate McCain because he’s made some bad calls. If we turn into Canada South by electing Obama & more Dems in Congress, it will be partially the purists’ fault.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:09 AM

Purists? PURISTS!!!? Is that what I am for believing that Congressmen and the President should obey the Constitution, that they took their oath of office to defend? Is that what I am when I believe the President should enforce the immigration laws as written, as he is sworn to uphold?

It is the moderates who have infected our party with stupidity that have brought this upon us. Stop nominating RINOs and I’ll enthusiastically vote. But don’t you DARE place this blame at our feet!

And bad calls? McCain can’t even get half of the issues correct. Perhaps he should try out for weatherman instead!

dominigan on March 5, 2008 at 12:37 PM

McCain is a realist. Though needed and appreciated, the base does not elect you. Reasonable people who don’t sit in the extremes of the party elect you. I don’t hold it against him that he has tried to find common ground. Polarization is destroying the country.

I can forgive McCain a lot. I can’t forgive Obama anything. He is too much a Soros puppet and my worst nightmare if elected.

eaglesdontflock on March 5, 2008 at 12:47 PM

You rock, Ed. Just had to put that out there, again.

liquidflorian on March 5, 2008 at 12:49 PM

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 9:09 AM

As soon as McCain eats crow and starts to move to remove bad laws he pushed, then I will stop calling foul. Trampling the constitution isn’t a small matter.

Here is campaign finance I can go for…no limits, no public funds, anything can be said anytime…ie follow the constitution. Instead make all contributions an open book…that way we can determine if there were special favors for the donations.

Conservative Voice on March 5, 2008 at 2:02 PM

Conservative Voice

Did Reagan reverse every goofy thing he did, like raising taxes & sending GIs to Lebanon w/o weapons?
McCain is & always has been fairly conservative, which is 1000X better than Obamary.

jgapinoy on March 5, 2008 at 7:23 PM