A broken record keeps on playing

Democracy 21 highlights on their website a Bloomberg News article that regurgitates the dubious arguments of those who advocate ever tightening campaign finance and speech regulations.

The article begins by comparing the amount of money that the U.S. spends per capita on elections with other industrialized nations and laments the thought that the 2008 election cycle could top $5 billion.  "It isn’t clear that we have any comparative advantage from all this freedom to spend money," concludes Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute.

Fred Wertheimer adds that the election is a spending "arms race" in which "reality disappears, paranoia reigns as you just try to top the other guy."

Of course, the ’08 election, in which there is neither an incumbent President nor a sitting Vice President interested in running, is the most wide open election in history.  A plethora of viable candidates results in more well-funded campaigns which naturally increases aggregate spending.  So, instead of denouncing increased aggregate campaign spending because there are so many viable candidates, we should be celebrating the robustness of our democracy.

But the article notes, with dismay, that "the presidential primaries this time are a case study.  As the leading contenders shun public money and restriction on expenditures in each state, the lid has come off.  In Iowa, the scene of the first contest, there are reports that both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might spend as much as $15 million apiece."

The increased spending, though, really just means more opportunities for candidates to communicate directly with voters in an effort to advance their campaign – a fact that Democratic consultants Steve Elmendorf and Joe Trippi readily acknowledge.

The article then tries to claim that campaign finance regulations have been a success.  "The criticism from American political conservatives and libertarian liberals, who oppose any campaign-financing restrictions, is that both the Watergate and McCain-Feingold reforms of 2002 failed. Not so…

In 1974…Critics argues that the changes…would be tantamount to an incumbent-protection act.

The next several presidential elections were among the cleanest in modern history; in the first two contests after the measure became law, challengers defeated sitting presidents.  That had occurred only twice before in the 20th century."

Not only is it naïve, at best, to suggest that campaign finance restrictions had much of anything to do with electoral defeats of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but the article conveniently ignores the effect that campaign finance regulations have had on congressional races.

Indeed, since contribution limits were first enacted at the federal level in 1974 successful challenger campaigns have plummeted by 50 percent.

The article goes further still, spinning revisionist history about BCRA by claiming that "the limited objective of McCain-Feingold – to curtail the ability of big contributors to influence federal office holders and of corporations and labor unions to directly affect elections – has been realized."

But supporters of McCain-Feingold really hoped to reduce the amount of money in politics and strictly regulate independent speech – a crusade that they continue today. 

The article then predicts that "when the next big scandal erupts…a backlash will ensue and new reforms will be enacted." 

But by now it should be clear that ever tightening speech restrictions only serve to increase the cost of fundraising and divert contributions to other channels.  Instead, the real reform that should be enacted is greater political freedom.

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