- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010


Panicked over the prospect of yesterday’s Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling, campaign finance “reformers” already had created a backup plan. Their new effort to regulate and restrict free and open debate in federal political campaigns appears in a bill in Congress called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), which would create welfare for politicians using the peoples’ money to help them fund their political campaigns, whether the people support, oppose or are indifferent to that politician. After spending billions bailing out failing banks and car companies, the Democratic majority in Congress now wants some government loot to bail out its own, perhaps similarly troubled, campaigns.

The latest House version sets up a fund from the proceeds from spectrum auctions, while the Senate version creates a fund from taxes on businesses that contract with the government. The money in these funds would go to candidates, while the ability of Americans to contribute to such candidates except in small amounts would be restricted yet again.

Congress’ efforts are part of a nationwide movement to replace traditional campaigns - in which citizens running for election work hard to attract support and voluntary donations from the public based on their views and vision - with seemingly free government money. Similar programs have been established at the state level in places such as Arizona with dismal results. In Arizona, which has the most extreme version of such laws, campaigns have become even dirtier, as candidates no longer have to moderate their language to attract financial support. The legislature is more polarized then ever, and incumbency re-election rates are what they were before the law was passed.

It makes no sense now, when the government is spending its way into unprecedented deficits, to spend even more federal money to pay candidates to seek, or keep, cushy jobs as legislators. Even if the government were drowning in revenue, however, FENA represents a serious expansion of the government into the conduct of our elections and one that is doomed to failure.

The Fair Elections Now Act represents the same tired ideas that “reformers” have been pushing for decades: creating punitive restrictions on the ability of Americans to fully participate in the political process by supporting the candidates of their choice, and funding politicians’ campaigns with tax dollars.

As with every other limit they’ve placed on political speech and participation, we can expect FENA’s inevitable failure to prompt calls for even more punitive restrictions on political speech and further government intrusion into the conduct of our elections. Ultimately, such reforms are fool’s gold. The problem with Congress giving out special favors is not that it gives such favors to the wrong people, but that it has taken upon itself the power to give such favors in the first place. Temptation will always be present when the government acts beyond its limited constitutional powers; when the government is handing out benefits, people will always try to influence the government to ensure that those benefits go to them.

The answer to such corruption isn’t pre-emptively to shower politicians with so much money that they won’t feel temptation to sell their votes, but rather to restrict the federal government to its proper constitutional role so those in power are institutionally incapable of handing out favors in the first place.

In a time when Americans are cutting back while being asked to support a growing government infrastructure, spending money so politicians can remain in office or get elected to a new one seems like a particularly callous joke. This new federal “cash-for-clunkers” government subsidy seems especially wasteful in that it seeks to treat the symptom - corruption - rather than the disease of unrestrained government.

Bill Maurer is the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter. The Institute for Justice litigates nationwide in defense of free speech.

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