Thursday, March 19, 2009

President Obama is upset that the Federal Election Commission isn’t more rigorously enforcing campaign finance laws. The FEC, traditionally equally divided between Democratic and Republican members, has failed to enforce many cases simply because commissioners would traditionally defend the parties that they represented.

Suggestions are being floated that things will change dramatically on May 1 when the terms of two more commissioners end, making three vacancies on the four-member commission. A trial balloon is being floated that Mr. Obama may just appoint people who he thinks will aggressively pursue campaign finance violations, regardless of their political affiliation.

We have two serious problems with this idea. First, it is good that the two parties balance each other off. It would be a disaster to think of a panel dominated by either Democrats or Republicans. If Mr. Obama were to appoint a majority of Democrats, they could effectively destroy Republicans’ ability to campaign for office. Defending litigation aimed against Republicans would be very costly and could decimate campaign treasuries.

The Byzantine campaign finance rules contain so many contradictions that they make tax forms look simple. The rules were seemingly set up to give jobs to professional campaign experts. But it is extremely easy to argue over whether certain actions are a violation, or whether intent to violate a rule was actually involved. It is equivalent to having the cops tell you what the speed limits are only after they have pulled you over. Having one party, no matter how benevolent it may claim to be, make these decisions is a scary proposition.

Let’s be honest about our second reason for opposing a change in appointees. We like gridlock. Campaign finance regulations entrench incumbents. Whether one looks at state or federal regulations, creating more regulations has raised incumbent re-election rates, incumbents win by larger percentages, and fewer incumbents are even challenged in races. The less competitive races that campaign finance laws produce also mean fewer people bother to vote. Having the rules not being enforced sometimes doesn’t bother us, if it even slightly frees up the system.

Having one party be both a participant and the sole judge of whether the game is being played fairly is something that we hope that we will never see in America.

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