- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

WELFARE FOR POLITICIANS? TAXPAYER FUNDING OF CAMPAIGNS

Edited by John Samples, Cato, $12.95, 312 pages, paper

A congressional election campaign looms in 2006, a presidential one in 2008. To wage these campaigns, candidates and parties need ready cash. But this political fact of life poses a question of the First Amendment right of free speech. For if money talks, America’s problem becomes: Whose money is going to do the talking?

That’s the big question of this tantalizing and frequently brilliant book. Its editor, John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government, and his 12 contributors confront this question, taking on ever louder critics of the still-dominant private campaign financing process at stake at the federal and state levels.

Still, Mr. Samples properly notes the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) that the government has a strong interest in preventing campaign corruption or even the appearance of any quid pro quo corruption, an interest which the Court holds may — repeat may — outweigh the First Amendment right of free speech implicated in private campaign giving.

Critics, often citing Buckley v. Valeo as vindication, insist government campaign funding saves democratic values. They say such funding exalts the public interest in significant ways: It builds election and lawmaking integrity by avoiding corruption; it advances political equality; it promotes electoral competitiveness and so on. So claiming private campaign money corrupts, these critics say government should take over a lot more campaign financing, as it has in Britain.

ContributorPatrick Basham, a senior fellow in Cato’s Center for Representative Government, reviews British experience and in the process raises an implicit question: But can’t government money itself also corrupt? Mr. Basham observes that besides the United Kingdom other nations with some degree of state campaign funding include Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan and the United States with, for example, its IRS Form 1040 federal campaign dollar checkoff and several states providing state funding for their respective and I assume usually appreciative candidates.

Yet, surprisingly, he finds the British electorate cynical about state campaign funding. He quotes the liberal Manchester Guardian newspaper editorializing: “The central question concerning the future of Britain’s political parties is not whether there is a crisis but how the crisis is addressed.” And he quotes the conservative London-based Economist saying: “State [campaign] funding… is just as problematic as private funding,” with the weekly adding that it has found government funding actually speeding up the search for greater private “donations.” Concludes Mr. Basham: “In all its seductive guises, government-funded politics is a siren song to be avoided.”

The team of Mr. Samples and Adam Thierer, Cato’s director of telecommunications studies, ask tongue-in-cheek: But should taxpayers “subsidize the soapbox” in the first place? Good query. The two authors take a jaundiced view of the “free” airtime proposal of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. The McCain proposal, incorporated in his foxily named “Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act,” a bill cosponsored by Sens. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, in 2003, but not reintroduced in the current Congress, most likely because of pressure from irate broadcasters.

No wonder. The rub with the McCain bill was its impositions on broadcasters. Smacking of eminent domain but without “just compensation,” it would make broadcasters give up 12 hours — half of them in prime-time — in the six weeks prior to each primary and general election. Adding insult to injury, broadcasters would have had no editorial control over the content of those 12 hours.

Contributor Chip Mellor, general counsel and head of the Washington-based Institute of Justice, tracks a number of states — such as Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts and Vermont — in the campaign-funding business, which he sees as “monopoly” finance. He shakes his head at the sorry results of public campaign financing. He asks: What about free speech, innovation and creativity, “the very catalysts of effective democracy?”

His question reflects the libertarianism of the authors here, Cato as publisher, and Founding Father George Washington who reminded us: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force.” So to all the many Sen. John McCains throughout the federal and state legislatures, are you listening?

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Auburn, Ala.

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