Match candidates’ scratch


Today, former FEC chairman Smith and Brookings Institution fellow Mann discuss public financing of campaigns. Previously, they debated broader campaign finance solutions, the real or perceived dangers to the McCain-Feingold law and the quality of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Wisconsin Right to Life case.

Subsidizing crank campaigns
By Bradley Smith

No and no.

What does it mean to say that matching funds — or any system of tax-paid campaigns — “works”? Generally, we are told that government subsidies, whether in the form of straight cash or “free” air time, and whether intended as the sole source of campaign spending or merely a part of the total, will reduce corruption, increase competition and promote political equality. But we have years of experience at the federal level, in states, and from abroad, and from all this experimentation there is no evidence that any of these things are true.

As there is little evidence that campaign contributions corrupt, the whole idea starts with a strike against it. Corruption exists where power exists — Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham didn’t need campaign contributions; illegal bribes worked just fine. Tax financing doesn’t make the system more equal; eliminating one form of political influence merely increases the power of those sources of influence that remain. When Arizona adopted a “clean elections” program (and what does it say about a program that it has to go by a pseudonym such as “clean elections” rather than call it what it is — “government-financed”), labor unions took care of qualifying the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for funds. Was their influence reduced? If Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton declines government funds next year as the Democratic nominee for president, neither will be any more or less “corrupt,” and average citizens will have no more or less influence if either is elected.


It’s easy to say, “The government will pay for it,” but that leaves the question with which we started the week: What about Wisconsin Right to Life? What does it mean to say the government pays for campaigns? That no one else can talk about politics? That candidates, and candidates alone, get to decide on the issues to be discussed? Or do Wisconsin Right to Life and other groups representing millions of citizens get to participate? If not, is that what we want? If so, have we reduced “money” or “influence,” or just re-channeled it in unproductive ways?

Since 1976, taxpayers have been forced to help pay for seven presidential campaigns by Lyndon LaRouche, one conducted from his cell in federal prison, and three campaigns by John Hagelin, whose platform consisted of transcendental meditation. We’ve paid for campaigns by Keating Five senator Alan Cranston, and such long-forgotten luminaries as Reubin Askew, Larry Agran and Milton Schapp. We’ve paid for balloon drops at conventions and television attack ads.

Tax dollars spent subsidizing the presidential campaigns of LaRouche or Agran can’t be spent on hurricane relief, body armor for troops, or anything else without offsetting budget cuts, deficits or tax increases.

To me, to say something “works” means we actually get better government. I suppose we can “save” tax financing of campaigns by pumping more money into it, but why would we want to?

Bradley Smith served as commissioner on the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005, and as chairman of the commission in 2004. Currently professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, he is the author of “Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform” (Princeton University Press 2001).

Money well spent
By Thomas E. Mann

Yes and yes. But first a digression.

Brad, in your response Wednesday to my discussion of campaign finance practices in other democracies, you missed the point. I am not arguing that we should (if we could) adopt these other regulatory regimes. Indeed, they seem especially ill-suited to our society as well as to our Constitution. Instead, I was trying to put your crocodile-tears rhetoric about suppressed political speech in some perspective. Your examples of censorship (including the trumped-up FEC vs. WRTL case) are trivial relative to routine and widely accepted practices in other democracies. Britain prohibits paid political ads and severely limits spending by candidates, parties and independent groups. That’s what I call restricting political speech.


Can you imagine living in a country that so transparently suppresses such speech? (I can and I have; political dialogue in Britain is actually quite lively.) But wait: the United Kingdom under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair has performed impressively on many of your measures of substantive government, including economic growth, unemployment, educational standards, health indicators, etc., in spite of their oppressive campaign finance regime. (And dare I remind you that France tops the world in health measures?) Perhaps trying to link single indicators of electoral arrangements (such as the degree of regulation of campaigns and political speech) to broad measures of performance is a fool’s errand. The wellsprings of economic and social performance are much more diverse and complex. Sorry I don’t have space to challenge your assertion that “campaign finance restrictions are subject to challenge because they don’t work and because there is little empirical evidence to support them.” Only a tendentious summary of the evidence could support such a claim. We will have to defer that debate to another day.

Now back to today’s subject of matching funds or, more generally, public financing. I gather you dislike public subsidies for campaigns as much as you revile regulation of contributions, expenditures and, to a lesser extent, disclosure. Here you part company with many of your allies in WRTL and McConnell v. FEC, such as the ACLU, AFL-CIO and Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan. They welcome such subsidies as a floor, not a ceiling on expenditures, as a way of bolstering challengers and increasing the level of electoral competition. You believe such resources will spring naturally from an unregulated private sector, a belief that perhaps relies a bit too much on one example — General Motors heir Stewart Mott’s financing of Gene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign against Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. (I never imagined how often that chestnut could be pulled from the fire.) The evidence supporting your belief is very hard to find.

The presidential public financing system worked well between 1976 and 1992. The fundraising arms race cooled. We saw less heavy-handed pressure on corporations by campaign and party officials to pony up; more candidates encouraged to run; most elections competitive; no outcome determined by an asymmetry in resources; and the public dollars provided to LaRouche and Agran way too small to make a dent in hurricane relief or body armor. That system fell hopelessly out of date and needs major restructuring if we are to return to those more attractive conditions. States and localities have also been pleased with their public funding initiatives. All in all, a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

Thomas E. Mann, the W. Averell Harriman chair and senior fellow ingovernance studies at the Brookings Institution, was an expert witnessin the constitutional defense of the McCain-Feingold campaign financelaw. He is coauthor of “The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook” and “TheBroken Branch.”

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