State’s Legal Opinion Strikes Blow to “Clean Elections”

New Jersey Office of Legislative Services:  "Rescue Funds" Unconstitutional

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services (OLS) issued an opinion Tuesday that strikes a blow to efforts to expand the state’s system of publicly-financed elections, the Gannett State Bureau reported this morning.

The OLS opinion found that so-called "rescue funds" are unconstitutional in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling that said "leveling electoral opportunities" is an insufficient justification with which to impose campaign finance laws.

"Rescue funds" are supplemental money given to candidates who are participating in the government-financing program, if they are faced with non-participating opponents or spending by outside groups that exceed the initial government grant.

"Taxpayer-financed political campaigns become much less attractive if the rescue fund provisions are removed," said Mike Schrimpf, communications director at the non-partisan Center for Competitive Politics.  "The OLS opinion recognizes that certain provisions in taxpayer-financed campaign programs undermine and penalize core political speech."

The OLS opinion said that rescue funds "would deter freedom of expression by a non-participating candidate or a group making an independent expenditure without sufficient justification because rescue money does not address the risk of actual or perceived corruption."

"One has to wonder if this ruling does not kill the effort to take taxpayer-financed campaigns statewide," Schrimpf concluded.

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The Center for Competitive Politics has produced numerous studies about the impact of taxpayer-financed elections in New Jersey and other states. Those studies are available by clicking on the hyperlinks below:

Do ‘Clean Elections’ Reduce Lobbyist and Special Interest Influence?

Legislator Occupations: Change or Status Quo After Clean Elections?

Appendix 5 – Conclusions and recommendations on New Jersey’s "clean election" experiment

General Overview

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Beware of political raffles

Earlier this month, we told you about a raffle being conducted by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that may violate Minnesota’s gambling laws.

Well, it seems that Minnesota is not the only state that restricts the ability of political campaigns to use raffles as fundraisers. Florida Today details a county commission candidate who ran afoul of the law by raising $354 in $1 tickets.

Similarly, "Jason Steele, who is running for the Florida House seat now held by Mitch Needelman, held what his Web site called ‘art raffles’ for donated artwork in June at the home of an Indialantic town councilwoman. It raised about $7,000."

Florida law only permits raffles that benefit charities and non-profits, to which Steele replied, ""A political candidate is considered a charitable organization, according to my consultants. We ran it up the pole to everyone’s mother, brother, sister." Besides, "It really was an art giveaway," Steele said. "I looked at the statute and consulted with my campaign people. An art giveaway is not a raffle. We did not charge any money for the tickets. It was suggested."

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DSCC paving a new way?

The Hill examines today a new trend being employed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) that allows for greater coordination between the DSCC and candidates’ campaigns. But, while the DSCC’s  innovation may, according to The Hill, "change the way the campaign game is played," the response from Republicans reinforces the idea that the major purpose of most campaign finance complaints is to discredit your opponent.

First, here is what the Democrats are doing: "In recent weeks the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has begun its 2008 ad campaign by funding issue ads that feature their candidates in Mississippi and Oregon and are coordinated with their campaigns.

However, the ads don’t expressly ask viewers to vote for those candidates, and Democrats maintain that this loophole will allow them to spend lots more money on the television spots.

Campaign finance regulations restrict the amount of money the DSCC can spend on coordinated efforts with a candidate’s campaign. But because the ads don’t ask viewers to vote for the candidates, Democrats contend that law doesn’t apply."

Predictably, the Republicans responded by filing complaints with the FEC alleging that the advertisements are illegal and they have used these complaints to shape "court of public opinion, and the GOP has gained some traction with a media blitz."

More after the jump.

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If crime was legalized, there would be no crime…

The state of Pennsylvania is, shall we say, not necessarily known for open and honest government. Thus there seems to be little surprise over "Bonusgate," a scheme where Democratic state legislators used taxpayer funds for campaign purposes by giving bonuses to government employees for their work on political campaigns.

Further details can be found here.

My only question is, exactly how long will it be before so-called "reformers" seize on this scandal as a justification for their current pet panacea, taxpayer funded campaigns? It seems that every scandal in government these days is somehow used to explain the need for welfare-for-politicians schemes. One wonders if the "reformers" would even be capable of appreciating the irony of the argument that illegal diversion of taxpayer funds to political campaigns can be fought by legal diversion of taxpayer funds to political campaigns…

Filed Under: Blog

How much is too much?

CBS News’ Bob Schieffer wonders in a Sunday blog post about the merits of a presidential election that will likely cost $2 billion.

While remaining technically indifferent (Schieffer mostly just asks questions), Schieffer’s tone implies that he believes money plays too large a role in modern campaigns.

But is $2 billion really too much to spend on electing the president?

Consider that in 2006 Proctor & Gamble spent $4.9 billion advertising their soap, toothpaste, razors, and other goods. Surely, an amount that is less than half of what P&G spent advertising consumer goods is not too much to spend on advertising that will help determine who becomes President of the United States.

The New York Sun recognized "The Bargain of Democracy" in an editorial last year that addressed the possibility of a $5 billion election.

"The billions in projected spending may correspond to a scant $17 for every American, or about $8.50 a year, less than a movie and about the same as two venti peppermint mochas at Starbucks," the Sun wrote.

"At $5 billion, democracy is a bargain… Americans have personal consumption of nearly $9.8 trillion annually, or nearly $20 trillion in a two-year political cycle. To spend $2.5 billion on political campaigns is much less than 3 one hundredths of one percent of total expenditures. We spend far more on potato chips…The wonder of this campaign season is not how much political campaigns spend but rather how little they spend."

More after the jump.

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Democrat corrupted by Democratic Party?

In the never-ending world of campaign finance absurdities, I stumbled across this post at Red State, a Republican blog.

This gist of the post is this: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, running for U.S. Senate in Mississippi against incumbent Republican Roger Wicker, appears to have violated campaign finance laws by coordinating on an expenditure of at least $240,000, well in excess of the $180,800 allowed by current law.

This apparent violation has been helpfully brought to light by the disinterested but concerned citizens at the Wicker campaign (funny how most charges of campaign finance violations seem to be brought by opposing candidates), and I assume a formal complaint is being drafted right now if it isn’t already on its way to the speech police.

The absurdity, of course, is the idea that coordination by the Musgrove campaign and the DSCC is potentially corrupting and must therefore be limited and regulated. Really, what’s the danger here – that after being helped by the DSCC, Musgrove might feel obligated to vote in favor of the Democrat’s agenda in the Senate? Isn’t it a fair assumption that, if elected, that’s pretty much what he’s elected to do?

It’s also worth noting that the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment in the McCain-Feingold law (recently overturned by the Supreme Court, thankfully) allowed unlimited party coordination for candidates facing self-funded candidates. I guess even the "reformers" weren’t that bothered by the prospect of unlimited coordination between candidates and party committees.

In the era before McCain-Feingold, when unlimited contributions to parties were legal, there was at least a rationale (a bad rationale, but a rationale nonetheless) for limiting these types of coordinated expenditures. Now that parties are limited to accepting no more than $28,500 from any one individual (and Senator McCain would seem to believe that contributions of up to $70,100 aren’t corrupting, at least judging by this), does it really make sense to limit coordination by parties with candidates?

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Shifting

Last night, Barack Obama went on "NewsHour" where he was asked by Gwen Ifill to explain his "shift" on campaign finance issues.  Obama, who had pledged to participate in the presidential public financing system but subsequently rejected public financing, offered this explanation:

Well, campaign finance, there’s no doubt that that was a shift in recognizing that we could not broker a deal with the Republicans that would prevent the Republican National Committee or the Republican Governors Association or all these other organizations, that are already spending millions of dollars against us, that we could not contain them within a public financing system.

Obama’s latest explanation, in addition to being less than frank (more on this later), marked a stark difference in emphasis from his previous explanation as to why he would drop out the public financing system – that he had created a "a parallel public financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign, they can get on the Internet and finance it."

Of course, the best and most accurate explanation would likely be that it makes no sense to aribitrarily limit how much his campaign can spend communicating with voters and it is nonsensical to think that any candidate is more or less "corruptable" based on whether or not they choose to accept government financing.

More after the jump.

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Missouri opts for ‘competitive politics’

There has been a great deal of furor over Missouri Governor Blunt’s signing of legislation that effectively repeals campaign contribution limits. Critics derided the move as telling "Missouri voters that their wishes don’t matter," and allowing politicians to "take unlimited amounts from deep-pocketed donors while still being able to hide money from sources they don’t want voters know about."

Such sensational remarks are typical of a "reform" movement which seeks total taxpayer funding for all elections. The solution to all that ails our democracy, according to proponents of campaign finance regulation, is to "limit and level the playing field," or rather, to give everyone an equal voice by imposing a limit on how much each individual may contribute to a campaign. 

But such a solution is not in line with traditional American political philosophy of unencumbered political speech free of government restrictions. Contribution limits and other campaign finance restrictions weaken our democratic system.

More after the jump.

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Caving in to the “special interests”

John McCain the "reformer" is back.  

On Monday, CCP chairman Brad Smith highlighted the delicate lexicon used by McCain in a recent advertisement describing his work on "campaign reform" – carefully avoiding any direct mention of McCain-Feingold or "campaign finance reform."

Before that, McCain told the New York Times that he thinks of himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt conservative," due in part, to both’s support for campaign finance "reform." Ken Vogel neatly summarizes McCain’s latest rebranding effort in today’s Politico.

But as McCain tries to reseize the "reform" mantle, it may be time to revisit the impact of his reforms – especially in light of his caving in to his favorite special interest group, proponents of campaign finance and speech regulation.

More after the jump.

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McCain touts role in “campaign reform”

John McCain has begun running a 30 second version of this ad in Ohio and 10 other states, in which he touts his role in "campaign reform."  This is, to my knowledge, his first televised ad to tout, even obliquely, his role in passing campaign finance reform during this presidential campaign.  While "McCain-Feingold" did much to harvest good PR in the mainstream media for Senator McCain and helped put him on the national political map in the 1990s and early part of this decade, the failure of the bill to "clean up politics," the speech restrictions it put into place, and the organized opposition to excessive speech regulation that McCain-Feingold finally spurred, have made it much less popular today.  There is little doubt that McCain’s role in promoting and passing the failed McCain-Feingold bill, and defending its restrictions on political speech in court hurt him in his quest for the GOP nomination (Fred Thompson was also hurt by his role in passing the bill, which was sometimes referred to as "McCain-Feingold-Thompson" in those heady "reform" days of 2002).  He overcame that hurdle on the basis of his many other strengths, and by downplaying the issue, to the point where it was scarcely mentioned in the primaries, except in response to questions, where his answer was usually some variation of the non-sequitur, "I don’t know anybody who thinks there is too much money in politics."

It is interesting to see Senator McCain now pick up the issue again, even in this small way, as he prepares for the general election.  Obviously his campaign staff still thinks there is mileage to be earned with independents and conservative Democrats from the issue, or at least from claiming the mantle of "reform."  (The subject is listed among others – "military reform," "spending reform," – on which the ad claims for Senator McCain the mantle of "reform."  Of course, the notion that fighting for McCain-Feingold was some daring poltiical risk was never quite true – the more principled and politically daring position for a would-be president would have been to oppose these restrictions on political speech, earning the wrath of the New York Times and the Washington Press corps.  After all, no one is talking about Mitch McConnell or Phil Gramm for President – but that’s another issue.)  But it is also interesting that the ad does not refer to it "campaign finance reform," and makes no reference to "McCain-Feingold." 

It is no small marker for freedom that "campaign finance reform" is something even John McCain no longer wants to campaign on, even as he strives to keep the mantle of "reformer" that the press gave him for his role in passing these restrictions.

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