New Jersey Star-Ledger on campaign finance “reform”

The New Jersey Star-Ledger weighs in today with an editorial decrying the failure of so-called campaign finance “reform” to level the playing field, mostly due to that pesky First Amendment. The cause of the latest teeth-gnashing and garment-rending by New Jersey’s campaign finance “reform” community is Governor John Corzine’s decision to once again self-fund his campaign, while the two candidates vying to challenge him in the general election this November are apparently both planning to take taxpayer funding.

New Jersey’s system of taxpayer financing for gubernatorial candidates long predates their recent failed “clean elections” experiments, having been passed in the wake of Watergate. The Star-Ledger writes fondly of those early days and the promise they held:

When the campaign-funding reform movement began back in the 1970s, the first Federal Campaign Act represented an honest effort to level the playing field. Contributions would be made public and, more important, they would be limited.

Then came Buckley vs. Valeo… James Buckley… asked the court to permit him to contribute as much of his own money as he wanted to his campaign to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. The Supreme Court promptly sided with Buckley on First Amendment grounds and carved out an exception to the limits for those who self-finance.  

This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time since so few ultra-rich people were running for office. But that had changed by 2000, when Jon Corzine spent more than $60 million running successfully for a U.S. Senate seat. The Republicans cried foul. But by 2005, they had their own wealthy candidate running against Corzine, this time in the race for governor.

Apparently, the root of the failure of campaign finance “reform” is – those of us skeptical of campaign finance reform and with an outlandish fixation on the First Amendment! The Star-Ledger continues:

One reform offered on the federal level was the so-called “Millionaires’ Amendment” to federal campaign-finance law. This was an attempt by Congress to level the playing field by raising the contribution limits for those running against self-financing candidates. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw that amendment out. The ruling was confusing to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe campaign finance law, but it came down to this: The court’s conservatives wanted to rule all campaign-finance restrictions unconstitutional on the grounds they violate free speech. The court’s liberals wanted to impose the law across the board on the grounds this would lead to fair elections.

Neither side won a complete victory and campaign finance law remains a mess. The only people happy about this are Corzine, Bloomberg and a lot of campaign consultants.

Well, there’s one other group of people that are pretty happy about the demise of the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” namely advocates of strong and vibrant First Amendment protections for political speech.

There are a few curious omissions from the Star-Ledger editorial. For example, the editors don’t seem to have taken the time to think about what has driven the increasing number of wealthy self-financing candidates. The obvious reason is contribution limits, which make it more difficult for candidates to raise funds and therefore increases the advantage to those that can bypass the restricted fundraising process altogether simply by opening their checkbooks.

Another problem with their editorial is that it is dismissive of serious First Amendment concerns about such schemes. Instead, we are told that “campaign consultants” are happy about the Supreme Court striking down the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” as well as those darn “conservatives” whom we are told want to rule all campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional (if only!).

Also, and so typical of campaign finance “reform” advocates, there is no real evidence offered that the system “worked” in any meaningful fashion. Apparently simply invoking the magical words “campaign finance reform” is supposed to be sufficient to clean up New Jersey politics and “level the playing field.”

Finally, of course, the editorial mis-states the entire justification of our current complex and convoluted campaign finance system – it was not (at least primarily) designed to “level the playing field” or any similar feel-good platitude, it was to fight “corruption” or the appearance of.

The editorial ends on a better note, however. The Star-Ledger offers that “As for the voters, they’re left trying to tune out the high-priced hype and judge the candidates on their merits.” Which is the point of elections, of course – judging candidates based on each individual voters’ belief on who is best qualified and able to govern them. Unfortunately the Star-Ledger decries political speech as “hype” instead of recognizing its important role in helping voters answer just this question.

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