Archive for Thursday, February 21, 2002

Campaign reform not over

February 21, 2002


— Campaign finance reformers have had their way in Washington, which should keep them content or at least muted for maybe two years. But what will they attempt when next they announce, as they did this time, that the system they have created is scandalous and again needs their purifying touch? Events in Arizona suggest an answer.

The Clean Elections Act, enacted by a 1998 initiative, establishes public funding for all campaigns for state offices. To qualify for public subsidies, candidates need only collect a prescribed number of $5 contributions different numbers for different offices. Recipients of subsidies are not allowed to spend any other money. Subsides range from $10,790 in primaries and $16,180 in general elections for state legislative candidates, up to $409,950 in primaries and $614,930 in general elections for governor.

Reformers say the system is voluntary. Not exactly. Consider the incentives designed to compel participation.

Candidates who choose not to participate are severely penalized. To cripple their ability to participate in politics outside the "voluntary" system, statutory contribution limits for nonparticipating candidates are reduced by 20 percent, and reporting requirements are made more onerous. If nonparticipants manage, in spite of the imposed handicaps, to spend above the limits stipulated for participants, matching funds are provided to participants.

In this 2001-2002 election cycle, Arizona's subsidies will amount to an estimated $16 million. The money is supposed to come from four sources.

Two are voluntary. Taxpayers can dedicate $5 of their state income taxes to the fund. And, remarkably, for additional contributions they choose to designate for the state pool, they get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit a reduction of their tax bill of up to $530, or 20 percent of their liability, whichever is greater. So funding the public financing of campaigns is cost-free for taxpayers. Yet taxpayers have chosen to provide only 29 percent of required revenues. (Only 12.5 percent of federal taxpayers use the check-off for funding presidential campaigns.)

Two sources are coercive. The most important is a 10 percent surcharge imposed on all civil and criminal fines even parking tickets. And a $110 fee is imposed on all lobbyists for for-profit causes for example, the Chamber of Commerce but not teachers unions or Planned Parenthood.

The Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter is challenging both coercive measures as unconstitutional "compelled speech." The reformers' mantra that "money is not speech" is answered by the California Supreme Court, which has neatly said that "speech results, from money's enabling." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that government cannot force individuals to finance political speech against their will. By this the court has implicitly accepted the premise that "speech results, from money's enabling."

To see the future, look back eight years. In 1994, a year of liberal overreaching, Hillary Clinton's crusade for government domination of health care collapsed. Subsequently, liberals have taken a more incremental approach toward that goal. Much the same has happened regarding campaign finance reform.

In 1994, the reformers' bill included taxpayer-funded campaigns, state-by-state spending limits varying with population, and a ban on soft money (for parties, not candidates, for uses such as voter registration and turnout). That bill failed. But this year reformers achieved a soft-money ban which soon will have consequences that the reformers will say justify more reforms.

The more candid, or less circumspect, reformers acknowledge that their goal is complete public financing of campaigns, a system in which government will control the amounts of money used (and the times, places and manners of using it) to debate the composition of the government. Reformers will demand this when, in a few years, they declare it scandalous that their ban on soft money contributions to the parties has by the predictable hydraulics of political money flows diverted money to independent groups, some of them created for the purpose of receiving it.

The reformers' 1974 success, limiting contributions to candidates, gave rise to soft money and political action committees and to the reformers' demand for what has just been passed, a ban on soft money and restrictions on speech by independent groups. After the Supreme Court makes short shrift of those restrictions, independent groups will become even more important conduits of political money. Political parties, deprived of soft money, will have been pushed by reformers toward the margins of politics. Reformers will be shocked.

Then reformers will advocate measures foreshadowed by Arizona's, including government as a monopolist of money for political advocacy, and coerced contributions to the pool of money the government disburses. They will advocate this in, perhaps, 2004, declaring it urgent to correct the scandalous consequences of what they did in 2002.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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