Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform

By Samples, John | Ideas on Liberty, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform


Samples, John, Ideas on Liberty


Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform by Bradley A. Smith Princeton University Press * 2001 * 304 pages * $26.95

Responding to Watergate, Congress a generation ago passed draconian restrictions on campaign spending and fundraising. The Supreme Court eventually struck down the spending limits, but affirmed contribution ceilings and the legality of the new agency empowered to oversee the regulatory regime, the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Over time, inflation has made the contribution limits more restrictive, but campaign spending has increased apace.

In the mid-1990s Senator John McCain took up the cause of legislating new restrictions on campaign finance emphasizing the issue during his failed presidential effort in 2000. That cause was reinvigorated, thanks to the eagerness of many to see the Enron debacle as proof of the corrupting influence of campaign contributions. With the recently signed reform bill heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, Smith's book could not be more timely.

The cause of campaign finance "reform" attracts a strange melange of civic puritans, who decry corruption, and traditional egalitarians, who attack the "undue influence" of the affluent. Among the puritans should be counted McCain himself, who is nothing if not self-righteous, and the numerous Washington interest groups like Common Cause and the Naderite factions, all of which lobby to rid money from politics while taking millions from leftist foundations like the Joyce Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust.

Like earlier puritans, McCain and his allies prefer religious zeal to public reason; they rarely support their claim that campaign donations corrupt American government. Smith nonetheless examines their assertion with scholarly care. Political scientists have extensively studied the links between campaign giving and congressional voting. As Smith, a law professor at Capital University currently serving as an FEC commissioner, notes, they have found little if any connection between the two, an important finding since the only constitutionally acceptable rationale for restricting contributions would be preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. In fact, academic studies say party affiliation, ideology, and constituent preference are more important factors affecting congressional votes.

The most intellectually serious-and most dangerous-proponents of campaign finance restrictions are the traditional egalitarians, who profess their cause in our most eminent law schools. Some law professors argue that we must restrict the political speech of some to enhance public debates and thereby realize "First Amendment values." Others say the Fourteenth Amendment requires government action to promote a de facto equality of influence in politics. …

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