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.