The Recorder: Campaign Finance Confusion (In the News)

If you’re looking for a poster child for big money
candidates, skip George W. Bush and go straight to
Eugene McCarthy and his 1968 presidential campaign.

“I couldn’t have run for president if it hadn’t had been for
big money contributors,” says the former Democratic
senator from Minnesota who brought down Lyndon
Johnson.

At 83, McCarthy maintains his urbane, soft-spoken,
I-go-my-own-way manner while reminiscing last Friday
about the campaign and munching on a tuna fish sandwich
in the Senate Office Building. Later, in a blunt speech to the
conservative Federalist Society, he ridicules current
campaign finance laws and proposals for public financing of
elections.

McCarthy wants contribution restrictions rescinded
because they impinge on First Amendment rights.
“Freedom of speech is under attack by federal election
law,” he says, which tries to “put limitations on who people
can vote for.” Major newspapers supporting finance
restrictions think that “the only institutions that should have
freedom of speech are the press itself and television
networks.” Government funding of elections is “worse than
anything.” Political parties and Congress “have been
undermined by the work of Common Cause” and like
groups who support contribution restrictions. He says
there’s no proof that “big money corrupts politics.”

But there’s plenty of evidence that the present campaign election laws work for incumbents and against challengers.

Adjusted for inflation, the 1968 McCarthy campaign raised
more money from private donors than George W. Bush has
to date. His effort was kick-started by a small group of
wealthy financial angels who ignored conventional political
wisdom that decreed McCarthy didn’t have a prayer. The
New Hampshire primary ended the Johnson presidency.
McCarthy eventually lost the party nomination to Hubert
Humphrey, but his candidacy helped hasten America’s
withdrawal from Vietnam. Today’s $1,000 individual or
$5,000 PAC federal election limits on contributions would
have made his run impossible.

McCarthy’s chief point on campaign finance is that the
government should not control political discussion. And that
is exactly where more contribution limits and government
financing of elections will lead.

A LUDICROUS ASSUMPTION
The assumption that political donations are made solely for
self-interested economic reasons (and never for ideological
or social reasons) is ludicrous. Were Abolitionists or
anti-Vietnam War activists motivated by personal gain?

But even if the assumption was true, so what? The real
problem today is that too little, not too much, money is
being spent on politics. Lack of resources is the primary
reason challengers cannot defeat incumbents. Estimates of
spending in the 1994 Congressional elections are pegged
between $7.50 and $10.00 per eligible voter. In
comparison, calculates law professor Bradley Fields,
Americans spend twice as much on yogurt and three times
as much on potato chips each year as they do on political
campaigns.

Contribution restrictions and expenditure rules operate like
price controls, producing a dynamic all their own that aids
the “ins” and entrenched interests. Everyone else would
benefit if there were more, not less, political discussion. The
only campaign finance statutes should be disclosure laws
for the sources of contributions. The government shouldn’t
pay for any campaign, and it shouldn’t restrict how
candidates or supporters raise funds.

But pending legislation, the McCain/Feingold bill in the
Senate and Shays/Meehan in the House of Representative,
would make matters worse. These so-called campaign
finance reform proposals would freeze the status quo,
create what the ACLU calls a “speech police” and make it
harder for outsiders and challengers to be heard. The bills
are an all-out assault on political speech by issue advocacy
groups — private organizations like the ACLU or the
National Right to Life Committee. They are good policy
only if the goals are to further depress voter turnout, retain
incumbents and increase cynicism about the political
process.

Next month the Supreme Court has an opportunity to
correct some current wrongs when it revisits campaign
finance restrictions during oral arguments in Shrink
Missouri Government PAC v. Nixon. That case is an
Eighth Circuit decision from last year, 161 F.3d 519, which
overturned a Missouri law limiting campaign contributions
to $1075. The court may use the occasion to modify its
1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, and do
away with contribution limits in federal elections.

A SARDONIC TWIST
Meanwhile, next March, Californians will be voting on yet
another bad campaign finance measure — a common
election year rite. The initiative is misleadingly entitled the
“Voters Bill of Rights.” It was cobbled together by Ron
Unz, a libertarian who should know better, and Tony
Miller, the author of an even worse 1996 initiative that
fortunately is still tied up in the courts. Unz/Miller starts with
the usual assumption that Californians are too stupid to
think, much less speak, for themselves and therefore
require further government supervision over their electoral
process. The new measure sets contribution limits at
$3,000 for local and state offices and $5,000 for statewide
offices. It also doles out limited public financing of elections
from the state’s general fund, subject to “voluntary”
spending restrictions. Its one original idea is a rapid Internet
disclosure scheme for campaign contributions. But even this
good proposal is negated by a provision that turns some
volunteer Internet sites into regulated campaign committees.

And Unz/Miller has this sardonic twist: Silicon Valley
centi-millionaire Ron Unz used his personal fortune to make
himself a major political player by first running against Pete
Wilson in the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary and then
later financing Prop 227, the anti-bilingual education
initiative. But Prop 227 ran into A. Jerrold Perenchio, the
wealthy owner of the Univision broadcast network, who
according to press reports put up $1.5 million of his own
money to oppose the measure. Prop 227 still won. One
goal of Unz/Miller is to prevent individuals from exercising
as much political speech in the future as Perenchio did last
November. Initiative backers or opponents that accept
state financing could generally raise no more than 10
percent of their funds from any one donor.

Does Unz really believe that once government bureaucrats
and incumbent politicians take control of campaign
financing, they won’t jimmy the rules against controversial
propositions like Prop 227 and non-incumbent challengers?

“I’m always annoyed when I find somebody advocating
more government funding of elections,” says Eugene
McCarthy, who trusts the American people and the First
Amendment to keep elections honest. Judges, legislators
and voters should all listen to him.

George M. Kraw is a San Jose attorney.

Reprinted by permission from The Recorder

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.