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Opinion

Opinion

Campaign finance corruption worsens

July 12, 2010

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— Two splendid recent developments have highlighted how campaign finance “reforms” have become the disease they pretend to cure. In Arizona and in Congress, measures ostensibly aimed at eliminating corruption or the “appearance” thereof illustrate the corruption inherent in incumbents writing laws that regulate political competition by rationing political speech.

The Supreme Court has blocked implementation of Arizona’s Clean Elections Act. Under it, candidates who accept taxpayer funding of their campaigns receive extra infusions of tax dollars to match funds raised by competitors who choose to rely on voluntary contributions. The law punishes people who do not take taxpayer funds.

Its purpose, which the Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional, is to restrict spending — and the dissemination of speech that spending enables — in order to equalize candidates’ financial assets. This favors incumbents, who have the myriad advantages of office. And it is patently intended to cripple candidates funded by voluntary contributions: Who wants to give to a candidate when the donation will trigger a nearly dollar-for-dollar gift to the candidate — or candidates — the contributor opposes? Just as the new health care legislation is a step toward elimination, by slow strangulation, of private health insurance and establishment of government as the “single payer,” laws like Arizona’s are steps toward total public financing of campaigns — government monopolizing funding for campaigns that determine the control of government.

In Congress, Democrats have not yet put the final blemishes on their proposal for restricting political advocacy, the Disclose Act (a clunky acronym — Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections), but already it is so awful it is excellent. Its nakedly partisan provisions, and the squalid process of trying to ram it into law, illuminate the corruption that inevitably infects what is supposed to be a crusade to purify politics: When constitutional rights are treated as negotiable, the negotiations corrupt the negotiators.

The National Rifle Association began a bizarre bazaar when it told Democrats it would not oppose Disclose if it exempts entities with a cynically constructed set of attributes that only the NRA has. When other interests howled, Democrats began tweaking the bill to enlarge eligibility for membership in the category of groups that will have broader speech rights than others do. The NRA’s intellectual ludicrousness and moral disarmament is in arguing that the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms is absolute, but the First Amendment’s protection of free speech is for favored groups to negotiate with ... Congress.

The campaign-reform community’s self-inflicted disgrace with Disclose is not just in continuing to treat the First Amendment as a turkey to be carved. It also extends the blackout periods in which certain kinds of political advocacy are banned. The increasingly opaque apparatus of political speech regulation that Democrats favor is beginning to resemble the rococo tax code. The contrast with the First Amendment’s limpid simplicity would cause reformers to blush, if they were capable of embarrassment.

For all its faults, some of which the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional, McCain-Feingold was at least evenhanded: It favored incumbents but did not contain provisions overtly intended to secure partisan advantage. Democrats are rushing to enact Disclose to control this November’s elections and before the Supreme Court can adjudicate its dubious constitutionality. They are betting that Republicans will be unable to get quick injunctive relief.

McCain-Feingold supporters could at least claim that they had evidence of a need. They said their law responded to decades of experience with supposed defects of the existing system. Disclose, however, is a putative cure for a hypothetical ailments. They are those which Democrats assert, without evidence, will result from the Supreme Court ruling that unions and corporations — including nonprofit advocacy corporations, from the NRA to the Sierra Club — have a First Amendment right to independent political advocacy. Disclose is a compendium of burdensome regulations and mandates designed to largely nullify the court’s ruling for corporations. It leaves unions largely free to continue spending on behalf of Democrats.

Beware when the political class preens about protecting us from “special interests.” The most powerful, persistent and anti-constitutional interest is the political class. Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says Disclose should stand for Democratic Incumbents Seeking to Contain Losses by Outlawing Speech in Elections. It is a reason for voters to multiply those losses.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com

Comments

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Equal funding for all candidates or free and equal airtime is the only way to prevent the candidate with the most money from winning most of the time (which is what happens now), and being beholden to their campaign contributors.

Politicians are supposed to represent their constituents, and pay attention to the common good, neither of which are served when they have massive campaign contributors they must please.

grammaddy 4 years, 5 months ago

Sounds like the REAL campaign finance reform this country needs.Make them pay for their own campaigns. No more"corporations are people, too."

tomatogrower 4 years, 5 months ago

If we channeled all the money used in campaigns into the national debt, it would be wiped out quickly. What a waste of resources. And it's hard to tell who has bought which candidate. Many corporations give money to both candidates in one race.

grammaddy 4 years, 5 months ago

They're hedging their bets to make sure they have influence over whoever wins.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

That's a good point - there are many more important things that could be done with that money.

ralphralph 4 years, 5 months ago

Transparency is probably the only achievable reform. If my elected officials are bending over for someone's money, I deserve to know who is paying.

tomatogrower 4 years, 5 months ago

They should wear stickers, like on race cars.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Have you met Tom Shewmon?

You two will probably get along swimmingly.

jonas_opines 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, there's your problem right there.

Try a slight alteration.

"God how I hate politicians."

It'll probably work better. Without it, the only thing you have to replace Democrats with is Republicans.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

I like those ideas.

Restricting speech is not always unconstitutional, by the way - perhaps the obvious harm being done by the money in politics is sufficient reason and justification for limiting this form of speech.

You can't yell "Fire" in a crowded theater if there isn't one, it's illegal to defame someone, to advocate violent overthrow of the government, etc. all because of the harm that speech does or may do to others.

independant1 4 years, 5 months ago

It's laughable, the intent of campaign finance reform legislation is to fix or clean up.

What is also laughable is the size of politicians war chests and what they can do with it when they leave office. Me thinks they've feathered their nest legislatively on that one too.

Here's another one for the suggestion box.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Another tidbit from the paper:

We (taxpayers) are paying millions/year to placate federal employees who've been abused in the workplace, and the dealings regarding that are secret and not available to the public.

Hmm.

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