Q: Was the GOP Proposal to Reform Campaign Finance a Good Idea?

By Thomas, William M.; McBride, Ann | Insight on the News, August 19, 1996 | Go to article overview

Q: Was the GOP Proposal to Reform Campaign Finance a Good Idea?


Thomas, William M., McBride, Ann, Insight on the News


Yes: Require all candidates to raise most of their funds from within their e electoral c districts.

Although defeated in the House on July 25, the campaign-finance reform bill (HR3820) nonetheless broke new ground by redefining the meaning of campaign-finance reform in a practical, workable and constitutional manner. As columnist David Broder recently observed' the proposal "essentially reverses the traditional definition of reform" and "may point the way toward the future."

The bill is the result of a series of the most comprehensive hearings since the 1974 campaign-finance reform legislation was passed during the 94th Congress. During those hearings, we heard from the House speaker and minority leader, more than 20 members of Congress and the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees. The Committee on House Oversight also heard from people involved in organizing political-action committees, or PACs, as well as those who contribute to them. The committee heard from academics who study our political system to understand how it works and from practitioners, candidates, incumbents and volunteers -- who have to live by the law every day. And perhaps most importantly, committee members heard from voters who are at the heart of campaigns.

From this diverse and knowledgeable group a clear message emerged: The system needs fixing. The campaign laws on the books were written in the aftermath of Watergate and intended to "fix" the system. Some of the reforms of the seventies have led to unintended negative consequences. The new Republican majority examined the common but tired remedies for change -- so-called "spending limits" that in reality benefit incumbents and taxpayer-financing of elections -- and sought new answers. HR3820 strikes at the heart of what is needed to ensure that, as Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour testified last December, "campaign-finance laws should result in campaigns and elections being more open, fair and more competitive."

What direction should the reform take? The most important goal in writing laws regulating elections is is strengthen the democratic process and to ensure that our republic thrives, and it does so best when voters choose their representatives in elections that are free of corruption or the appearance of corruption, as the Supreme Court stated in its 1976 landmark ruling, Buckley vs. Valeo. In that decision the court ruled that political spending is the equivalent of free speech. The shrillest voices for "reform" would overturn the court's ruling and usurp this fundamental constitutional right of free speech. Last year the Wall Street Journal wrote of Common Cause, the self-anointed arbiter of "reform": "Fred Wertheimer and Common Cause are the principal architects of the cockamamie financial gauntlet we inflict on our potential leaders. One of their conceits is that money is the root of all political evil, so they seek salvation in the Sisyphean task of eliminating its influence."

Common Cause was the chief architect of the 1974 Federal Elections Act. It is calling for further reform of the system it advocated, and its direction would take us further into the morass of government control and bureaucracy and further away from involvement of citizens at the grassroots level, which is the core foundation of our republic. The bill's approach redefines "reform" by abandoning the tired proposals of government control and increased bureaucracy. As a result, the Republican bill is not what pundits expected from politicians. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer observed in July, the bill departs radically from 20 years of reform orthodoxy, but it concluded that this "novel version of reform . . . is worth a try."

The Republican bill is based upon (continued on page 26) four principles intended to achieve these goals: restoring local control of elections; strengthening the role of individuals; strengthening political parties; and giving any citizens willing to put their names on the ballot the chance to compete on an equal basis against candidates who may have nearly inexhaustible personal financial resources. …

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