Money Walks: Why Campaign Contributions Aren't as Corrupting as You Think

By Milyo, Jeff | Reason, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Money Walks: Why Campaign Contributions Aren't as Corrupting as You Think


Milyo, Jeff, Reason


The recent fund raising excesses of President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich have become unlikely stalking horses for public financing of congressional campaigns. Both Clinton and Gingrich were engaged in "party building" activities that had no direct link to any congressional campaigns. Despite this, reformers point to these scandals as evidence that we need to overhaul the entire system of campaign finance. In the words of Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, the goal is to "harness the winds of anger and turn it into a demand for positive action." The president of Public Citizen, Joan Claybrook, cites "the orgy of party spending" as evidence that "immediate efforts to dean up the system [are] absolutely necessary." The McCain-Feingold bill, currently languishing in the Senate, embodies the change campaign finance reformers crave.

McCain-Feingold, also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, would outlaw almost all soft-money contributions to political parties - a restriction unlikely to survive judicial review. The Supreme Court has consistently held that contributions for "party building" activities are protected by the First Amendment.

The remainder of the bill - the part that could probably survive judicial scrutiny - places new limits on congressional campaigns. Political action committee contributions would be eliminated. And in case the Supreme Court strikes that provision, the bill lowers maximum allowable PAC contributions from $10,000 per candidate per election cycle to $2,000. McCain-Feingold would also force radio and television broadcasters to provide free and reduced-rate air time to candidates who abide by spending caps and restrictions on out-of-state contributions.

The leadership of Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the newly formed Campaign for America have made clear that they view McCain-Feingold as an important first step toward their real goal: full public financing of elections. Even though reformers acknowledge that public financing does violence to free speech, they see it as a necessary, drastic measure to end what they feel is the unacceptably dominant role that money plays in politics.

Few conventional wisdoms are so widely and firmly held - and so little supported by evidence - as the chestnut that there exists a vibrant cash-and-carry market for both elected offices and legislative votes. The two fundamental tenets of this "flea market" view of money and politics are 1) special interests buy favors from politicians with campaign contributions, and 2) incumbent politicians then use this dirty money to buy re-election with massive campaign expenditures.

More often than not, the popular press treats these claims as self-evident. In place of rational argument, one is simply offered lists of contributor names and dollar amounts. Visit the Web sites of the Center for Responsive Politics (www.crp.org), Common Cause (www.commoncause.org), or Public Citizen (www.citizen.org), and you will be inundated with such "analysis." When the reformers do make arguments, they point to the ever-increasing amount of money spent on elections, the gaudy spending advantage enjoyed by congressional incumbents, the high reelection rates of incumbents, the dearth of able challengers, and the well-known correlation of contributor interests with the committee assignments and voting records of incumbents.

It is true that over the past 20 years, total campaign spending has increased faster than the rate of inflation. It is also true that during this time the turnover rate in Congress (defeats plus retirements divided by the number of seats) was quite low - less than 10 percent in 1984, 1988, and 1990. In fact, it is more common for incumbents to be unopposed than to be defeated. Further, even when incumbents are challenged, most races are one-sided. Incumbents take advantage of this lack of competition to build up large reserves of campaign cash for use in future elections.

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