Campaign finance: government hands off!

imagesHillary loves pointing out that the notorious Citizens United case was about her: an anti-Hillary film that ran afoul of federal regulation. But the Supreme Court ruled that, under the First Amendment, the government can’t stop anyone from producing and distributing a political film. I think that was right.

Critics complain this opened the door to unrestrained campaign spending, allowing elections to be bought. UnknownYet repeatedly big spenders lose elections. If they could be bought, Jeb Bush, who raised the most money, would be the GOP nominee.

Were the spending all one sided, that would be a problem. But it can never happen in this big diverse country. By and large the two parties are fairly matched in fund-raising ability; and a candidate with substantial public support can always raise the sums needed to be competitive (as Bernie Sanders has done).

But our political spending regime is an opaque mess, dominated by unaccountable “Super PACs” (“political action committees’). The problem is not Citizens United but, rather, the whole Federal Elections schema set up by Congress (in the 2002 McCain-Feingold law) to regulate campaign spending. Jeb Bush himself called it “ridiculous.”

images-1Specifically, while one can spend unlimited amounts on one’s own campaign, others are limited to contributing $2700. That causes larger sums to route instead through PACs, which theoretically are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.

This is the system Bush criticized. Instead, he said, there should be no restrictions on spending for political advocacy – and it should be allowed to go directly to candidates, who’d be accountable for it – with full disclosure required (which is not true for PACs).

Now, can you imagine if Congress furthermore made it illegal for an advocacy organization to run ads criticizing a legislator within 60 days of an election? In America? Maybe in Russia. Yet Congress did exactly that, as part of the aforementioned federal election regime. It’s a blatant incumbent protection scheme that strikes the First Amendment in its gut.

Unknown-1Corruption is a real concern – public officials beholden to special interests that finance their costly campaigns. It’s bribery in all but name. However, I don’t think the answer is to restrict political participation but, rather, to broaden it. I have long advocated a tax credit for political contributions (up to a limit). A credit (not deduction) would mean the money effectively comes from the Treasury rather than the donor’s pocket. Thus it would be a form of public campaign finance, but far preferable to existing systems, because individual citizens would determine which candidates get what. And it would inspire such an outpouring of citizen-directed donations that politicians would no longer be reliant on special interest money.

In a free, democratic country, I think government has no business regulating, at all, the landscape of political advocacy. Government itself is not disinterested, and certainly the elected officials who run it are not. This is a power inviting abuse. Remember the Alien and Sedition laws, that made it a crime to criticize the government?

In a democracy, all interests, that have a legitimate concern with what government does, should have an unrestricted right to advocate for their viewpoints in the forum of public opinion. That includes TV ads. And it includes corporations. They too are legitimate parts of our society and should have the right to make their voices heard in public debate. Unknown-2You may not like them – but surely you don’t believe in silencing those you dislike or disagree with?*

Democracy is threatened far less by free campaign spending than by government measures to suppress it.

 

* Well – left wingers tend to believe exactly that.

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2 Responses to “Campaign finance: government hands off!”

  1. Paul Landsberg Says:

    Are you deliberately ignoring the impact that full and immediate transparency could have on campaign finance to comment on byzantine rules in gov’t? I sure would want to know if Goldman Sachs is pouring dollars into a candidate.

    Also, since we now treat corporations as people, the CEO and top five (and arbitrary number) should be named as part of a transparency effort.

  2. Lee Says:

    We have two fine traditions that you didn’t explicitly mention. Freedom of the Press gives any press unfettered freedom to publish. This includes a press that is a corporation, or was recently created by a corporation, or was acquired by a corporation. It includes any corporation (or other organization) that chooses to call itself a press.. The Citizen’s United ruling was correct; end of story.

    Two, although we aren’t always happy with the lack of transparency, our nation has a long standing tradition of allowing anonymous pamphlets. It is one of our protections against tyranny. People who wish to spend MM$ anonymously should be permitted to do so.

    I would love it if the majority could collectively outspend the special interests and would gladly support your tax proposal.

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