Politics

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SUMMARIES OF IMPORTANT NEW RESEARCH FROM THE NATION'S UNIVERSITIES, THINK TANKS, AND INVESTIGATIVE PUBLICATIONS

Campaign Finance Rights and Wrongs

George L. Priest, Buying Democracy: A New Look at Campaign Finance `Reform.'

Bradley Lecture, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute March 6, 2000.

Priest, of Yale Law School, believes the debate over campaign finance reform "has come to a dead end" because debaters rely on two antiquated models that don't accurately grasp money's role in politics.

The first model, in the "reform" tradition, holds that campaign contributions sway politicians to do the donor's bidding. But, Priest counters, no matter how low contribution limits are set, all voters will never be treated equally by their elected representatives: Politicians will still favor some voters over others for non-financial reasons.

The other side of the debate claims the current cap of $1,000 violates the First Amendment's protection of free speech. But, instead of thinking of campaign donations as speech, Priest says we should look at elections using a market analogy. Success in a marketplace depends on the intensity of demand for products. The $1,000 limit, unchanged since 1976, ensures the level of passion someone can have for a candidate cannot exceed the passion one may feel for "four good tickets to the New York Knicks or two round-trip airfares to Colorado."

Priest also defends "soft money" contributions, which are much criticized because they're unrestricted donations to a political party: "A soft money contribution allows a citizen to express support for political principles of greater generality than reflected in any single politician's views. It also allows the citizen to delegate to political professionals determination of how the money most effectively can be spent, much like a contribution to the United Way. …