Reforming Meehan’s War Chest

The Politico asks the question: "Why does Rep. Marty Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who hasn’t had a close race since he was elected in 1992, need a $5 million war chest?"

Not a bad question, and while we don’t know if he "needs" it, we certainly know why he "wants" it: Meehan believes the war chest gives him a strategic advantage, likely by discouraging underfunded challengers.  This discouraging effect is undoubtedly one reason why his supporters continue to give him money.  But does this aggregation of funds square with Meehan’s pro-"reform" rhetoric? 

Suppose that a single contributor has legally contributed $10,000 to Meehan over a number of years, and that this money, unneeded so far, has simply built up in Meehan’s war chest.  Suppose also that Meehan, at some point in the future, is faced with a tough challenger and needs to spend those funds.  By "reform" logic, can we expect Meehan to feel less indebted to his $10,000 aggregate contributor than his opponent would feel to a $10,000 lump-sum contributor?  And what about the "distorting" effect of large sums of money from individual contributors?  Surely the levels of "indebtedness" and "distortion" cannot turn on whether the sums were raised quickly or slowly.  

One "reform" solution to this problem is obvious: eliminate war chests–and the gratitude towards donors who have helped build them–by requiring that unused contributions be refunded following each election.  Of course, this is not the only possible solution, particularly if one is more concerned with "distortion" than "indebtedness."  If one favors complex solutions, parity could be achieved with a "War Chest Amendment" similar in structure to the "Millionaire’s Amendment."  Under such a provision, political challengers would enjoy increased contribution limits based on the size an incumbent’s war chest.  If one favors more straightforward solutions–as we at CCP do–one could eliminate contribution limits altogether and simply allow Meehan’s hypothetical challenger to raise the money necessary to compete effectively against Meehan’s sizeable war chest.

Despite his "reform" bona fides, we won’t hold our breath waiting for Meehan to co-sponsor our proposed "reform" solution, or any of our other proposed solutions (particularly not the one that we believe is constitutionally required).  We doubt Meehan would support any solution to this particular problem because, like many other incumbent congressmen, he doesn’t see it as a problem.  And, ultimately, that failure to perceive or acknowledge the pro-incumbent bias built into our system of campaign finance laws is one of the big problems with the entire "reform" enterprise.  It’s also one of the best reasons to take seriously the First Amendment’s command that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."

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