Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Mickey Kaus points out an interesting aspect of a loophole proposed by House supporters of campaign finance reform. The new "millionaire opponent" loophole allows candidates to triple their expenditures, among other concessions, if they are facing an opponent spending at least $350,000 from his or her personal weath on the campaign. The rule is ostensibly intended to reduce the advantage of individual rich candidates--who may spend as much of their own money as they please--over those who must meet their expenses by collecting donations. In fact, as Kaus points out, it could also make it possible for a wealthy backer to contribute $350,000 to a campaign while simultaneously increasing the supported candidate's spending power--by posing as an "independent" opposing candidate rather than as a mere supporter, and spending the money on "campaign ads" that actually favor the other candidate.

This loophole in the loophole illustrates yet again the basic problem with "demand-side" campaign finance reform: there's nothing really wrong with spending lots of money expressing political opinions like, "I think everyone should vote for me". That's why the "millionaire opponent" problem can't be solved by simply outlawing millionaire opponents; a law forbidding an individual to spend his or her own money to express such an opinion would be a blatantly stifling restriction on exactly the kind of free speech (indeed, arguably the only kind) that is vital to democracy. (For the same reason, many observers of campaign finance reform, including Kaus--not to mention myself--have long pointed to the "independent expenditure" loophole as a reform-killer. Who, after all, is going to prevent a rich person--or rich organization--from independently deciding to buy ads saying, "I think candidate X is dead right on a the following issues", or "X's opponent is all wrong on the following issues"?).

The solution, of course, is to forget about the "demand side" altogether, and concentrate on the "supply side", since that's where the corruption supposedly occurs, anyway--rich people or organizations buying political favors with huge campaign contributions. (And a lot of it probably does occur--not with respect to high-profile issues, where attentive public opinion forces politicians to pander to voters over donors, but rather when obscure but crucial laws are being decided--details of the tax code, for instance.) Suppose, for example, that the government simply reimbursed each candidate's campaign expenses up to some very large limit--enough to run a serious modern, television-oriented campaign--provided the candidate achieved some threshhold percentage of the popular vote. He or she could still legally accept private donations into their war chests, of course, but it would no longer be necessary, and soon enough a candidate would make a big issue out of not accepting any. (That can't happen today, because everybody is forced to go begging to wealthy donors--whether individuals or organizations--in order to be able to afford even a shoestring campaign, and saying, "my sugar-daddies are less venal than yours" will never be nearly as convincing as "you're being bribed and I'm not".) Even better, the FCC could require television networks, as a condition of license renewal, to reimburse paid airtime (or simply donate it, as they must in many other countries) according to a similar formula.

Unfortunately, Americans would apparently rather let their politicians sell themselves to the highest bidder, or even muzzle them outright, than pay the relative pittance it would cost to make political campaigns free and honest . Go figure.

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