- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Only in Washington could a measure designed to gut First Amendment freedoms and entrench incumbents be declared to be "reform." Only in Washington could such "reform" advance with so much sanctimonious support from media and self-anointed public interest elites.

The American electoral process is a mess. Many Americans are apathetic. When they vote, they often are stuck using antiquated voting equipment of the sort that helped spark the endless presidential recount of 2000. Even when Americans' votes are counted accurately, their alleged representatives seem more responsive to special interests than the public.

It's not a pretty sight. The cause is not too much money in politics, however. It is too little campaign cash. In 2000, politicians at all levels spent about $4 billion. That's a little more than $14 per person, enough for one CD or a couple of meals at McDonalds. Is that really too much to devote to choosing all elected officials, from the city council to the presidency?

That isn't much money, given the issues at stake. And it isn't much money, given the benefits of incumbency.

Politicians deploy enormous advantages to stay in office. Gerrymandered districts, extensive name-recognition, government perquisites, and ombudsman services make incumbents exceedingly difficult to beat. Re-election rates for both the House and Senate usually exceed 90 percent; out of 435 congressional seats, fewer than 10 percent are likely to be even competitive this year.

One of the few equalizers is money. It not only helps challengers run credible campaigns against incumbents. It helps average Americans, who can donate cash if nothing else, participate in a political process otherwise dominated by organized interest groups and skilled elites.

Particularly important is the role of independent issue ads. They are an important antidote to political sclerosis because they are usually directed against incumbents. Which is why a majority of congressmen enthusiastically voted to ban them while simultaneously refusing to approve a statement that no provision of the "reform" bill could violate the First Amendment. At the same time, the pending Senate legislation would mandate discounts for candidate ads.)

We've been down this reform road before. The Nixon campaign scandals led to the "reforms" of 1974, which ended big individual contributions. This measure begat political action committees, "soft money" for parties, and independent ads. Since then, more than a dozen states and Canada have restricted campaign fund-raising and spending.

The uniform result is less electoral competition and increased re-election rates. The newly passed House bill would reinforce these trends. It would shift the emphasis back to direct fund-raising by candidates particularly incumbents. And to soft money contributions to state parties.

The legislation would encourage labor unions to spend their money on in-kind aid and corporations to funnel their cash through nonparty advocacy groups. It would encourage the latter organizations to emphasize phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives before elections. It would encourage the wealthy to run their own advertisements.

Perhaps the strongest advocates of "reform" are those on the left who believe that cutting out the public will encourage approval of their high-tax, high-spending, high-regulation agenda. For instance, Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, claims that campaign money today comes from people "whose interests are often at odds with those of average Americans."

Democratic politico Donna Brazile contends that election contributions prevent socialization of American health care.

Rep. Martin Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, and even Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, blame campaign donations for preventing passage of all manner of good laws, including "new tools to combat hate crimes." Apparently they believe racists to be big givers.

In fact, the limits of the power of even the most well-heeled company is demonstrated by Enron. Nearly $6 million in soft money to both parties bought it virtually nothing. Enron got no further in lobbying for help in protecting its credit rating than would have an average person calling on President Bush to stop his mortgage from going into default.

More important, it is the interest of America's well-insulated governing elite that is often at variance with the interests of the public. And it is campaign contributions that allow average Americans to have a fighting chance in protecting their interests against everyone from multiterm incumbents to newspaper editors.

With campaign "reform" bandwagon rolling towards passage, Americans must depend on a blocking 41 senators to filibuster the bill, despite an almost certain tidal wave of sanctimonious obloquy. Failing that, the last barrier is a willingness by President Bush to use some of his vaunted political capital to do what is right rather than what might seem momentarily popular.

America's political system is broke, but the problem is too little money. Shifting control of the process ever more to elites is no solution.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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