Commentary Magazine


Campaign Finance

To the Editor:

Bradley A. Smith’s polemic against campaign-finance reform, “The Campaign-Finance Follies” [December 1997], misses the point by a mile. The problem is not how much money is spent on politics, but where it comes from and what contributors expect in return. People who spend large sums are seldom motivated by patriotism. Their contributions, in whatever form, look like what they are: bribes.

There is a deep conflict, unnoted by Mr. Smith, between the rights asserted by people with a lot of money and an interest in a particular issue to bribe or intimidate elected officials, and the rights of people without money, or with other uses for the money they have, to participate on even terms in the government of the republic. Neither the 1974 campaign-finance reforms nor the McCain-Feingold bill answers this problem adequately, but we must find an answer or democracy will soon be a transparent fraud.

Paul D. Carrington
Duke University School
of Law
Durham, North Carolina

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To the Editor:

Bradley A. Smith’s tirade against campaign-finance reform is rife with analytical flaws far more glaring than those he attributes to reformers.

As innumerable former politicians will confirm, candidates desperate to raise money are susceptible to pressure to do favors for those who support their campaigns. This concern about the corrupting influence of money is the principal rationale for limiting contributions directly to candidates and for limiting the sums of so-called “soft” money that political parties can raise and then spend in support of their candidates. Similarly, efforts directed at controlling campaign spending are motivated not by a belief that there is something inherently evil or wasteful about spending money on political speech, as compared to, say, potato chips, but by the sense that runaway spending generates a demand for funding that exacerbates the corrupting influence of contributions.

Certain patterns of giving are explicable only as proof that money influences officeholders. For example, in each election cycle, major corporations make six- and seven-figure contributions to both the Republican and Democratic parties. The executives authorizing these contributions are not stupid; it is not that they think both sides are going to win. They straddle the fence with huge amounts of capital because they are confident of a return on their investment—from both sides.

Yet Mr. Smith denies that campaign contributions can influence legislators because political scientists have found no strong correlation between campaign contributions and voting patterns. But studying voting patterns to prove that money has no corrupting influence on politics is like surveying the entrance to Rick’s cafée in the movie Casablanca to prove that no gambling was going on in the back room. Only a small fraction of the business of any legislature is accomplished by an up-or down recorded vote on a discrete issue embodied in a narrow bill. A contributor seeking a special favor is much more likely to fold the favor into a major bill. By the time the final bill is presented to the legislature, it is an agglomeration of many bits of special-interest litigation. Tallying votes will do little to uncover the extent of influence that has been brought to bear.

To be sure, politicians are influenced by a variety of factors apart from campaign contributions: personal convictions, pressure to toe the party line, the strong feelings of voters or voting blocs, and news reports and press endorsements. The reformers’ point is that money has a significant influence on the “stealth” issues—the issues on which the politician has no strong views, the issues on which public attention is not focused, the issues on which the party does not dictate a position.

In dismissing this reality, Mr. Smith resorts to one of the great canards of the campaign-finance debate: we ought not to be unduly concerned about the influence of money, because “most issues find well-financed lobbies on both sides.” The truth is that opposing interests rarely contribute in equal amounts. In federal elections, corporate interests outspend organized labor by a ratio of seven to one; the energy and natural-resources industries outspend environmentalists by ten to one; the defense industry outspends disarmament groups by twenty to one; and the National Rifle Association (NRA) outspends the largest gun-control political action committee (PAC) by nine to one. A denial of the corrupting influence of money cannot rest on some Newtonian fantasy that money exerts equal and opposite corrupting influences on all sides of a debate.

As to the spending side of the equation, Mr. Smith admits that “the candidate who spends more money wins most of the time.” But even this is a staggering understatement. In House races in the 1992 congressional elections, the candidate who spent the most won 89 percent of the time; in Senate races, the figure for the same year was 86 percent. Yet Mr. Smith denies that this strong statistical correlation proves cause and effect, and offers the alternative hypothesis that “it may be the prospect of victory that attracts money, not the other way around.” So, in Mr. Smith’s counterintuitive world, when candidates and political parties engage in a frenzy to raise and spend huge sums of money, it is not because the spending will help them win the election. Rather, it is just that fund-raising is a neat way to show how popular they are. Nonsense.

Mr. Smith’s ultimate goal is to promote an alternative reform option, a sort of free-market approach to democracy: just let the voters know who is trying to buy influence with huge contributions, and if they disapprove, they can vote the bums out. This is like saying, let consumers know what companies pollute the most, and if they disapprove, they can put the polluters out of business.

There are certain things in life that are too important to entrust to the free market. The fact is that the public already recognizes the influence of money on politics. The public demands, and deserves, a system that will imbue it with confidence that its elected officials are not corrupt—not an index where it can look up just how corrupt its officials are.

E. Joshua Rosenkranz
Brennan Center for Justice
NYU Law School
New York City

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To the Editor:

Bradley A. Smith offers a lucid and compellingly argued case against those who wish to reform the current campaign-finance law, but his laissez-faire recommendation does little to dispel my anxieties over the spectacle of a sitting President who is held hostage to the financial condition of his party. For it is only a slight exaggeration to say that raising money for the deeply indebted Democratic party is now almost a full-time job for President Clinton. The amount of that indebtedness might be a drop in the bucket in comparison to what the citizenry spends on popcorn or potato chips, as Mr. Smith points out, but the cost in time and prestige to the President to reduce that debt is incalculable.

We also know from this administration that the spirit of any law can be wholly perverted without breaking it. Unfortunately, the power and perquisites of the presidency insulate it in many ways from the negative consequences of bending rather than breaking the law and make it extremely difficult for outsiders to determine whether the law has indeed been broken.

Somehow, we need to liberate the executive branch from the problems of campaign financing as well as from midterm electioneering in order to restore a fully functioning presidency. As things stand now, the tail of campaign finance is certainly wagging the dog of executive government. The debate as framed by Mr. Smith may be too narrow to help us in this truly dangerous situation.

Ken Whelan
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

The fundamental flaw in Bradley A. Smith’s otherwise provocative and constructive analysis is in his statement that “there is no reason to expect that political communication should come free.” The case has been made by many, including me, that since those who own radio and television stations are using wavelengths that belong to all of us and not to them, the very least they could do is provide adequate time to serve the community. In a democracy there is no greater need than the strengthening of our electoral system. There are, obviously, serious obstacles that must be overcome if Congress is to establish a rational and sensible policy in this area, but they are not insuperable. Decisions as to eligibility and allocation of time, for example, can be dealt with once the principle is established by Congress.

Max M. Kampelman
Washington, D.C.

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Bradley A. Smith writes:

Paul D. Carrington envisions a world in which all “participate on even terms in the government of the republic.” But he himself does not participate on “even terms”—his job allows him unique opportunities for political influence that are denied to equally talented Americans in other lines of work. In his distinguished career he has exerted substantial influence on government policy in the area of civil litigation. Undoubtedly he views his role as an adviser to the Judicial Conference of the United States to be legitimate in a way that a contribution of money to an elected politician is not. But why is his source of influence legitimate while that of a small-business owner, who can make a financial contribution but has no personal skills of direct political value, is not?

Nevertheless, I am pleased Mr. Carrington agrees with me that the problem “is not how much money is spent on politics.” I only wish he could convince others of this. He might begin with E. Joshua Rosenkranz, who is still complaining about “runaway spending” and “huge amounts of capital.” Indeed, I am not sure if Mr. Rosenkranz even read my article, since he accuses me of saying things I did not say, and ignores most of the things I did say. I have never, for example, said that “money exerts equal and opposite corrupting influences on all sides of a debate.” If I believed that, I might actually favor greater regulation, since if the proposition were true, it would imply that no free-speech purpose is served by campaign spending.

But let me in any event address some of Mr. Rosenkranz’s points. Although it is true that it is difficult to measure “influence,” his characterization of the available studies as merely covering “up-or-down recorded vote[s] on a discrete issue embodied in a narrow bill” indicates that he is simply not familiar with this growing body of literature, which goes far beyond such narrow approaches. In the face of study after study that has failed to find significant influence by campaign contributions, Mr. Rosenkranz merely asserts that systemic “corruption” is there, even if he cannot prove it. His unsupported charge, all too typical of the campaign-finance-reform movement generally, smears and impugns the motives of thousands of candidates and officeholders and millions of their supporters.

At one point Mr. Rosenkranz makes the rare admission that factors other than money influence the legislature, but only money seems to concern him. Consider his attitude to the national media, to take one example. Almost certainly the media exert more influence on the public’s views than all paid political advertising combined, and most officeholders live in greater fear of how the press will cover them than of where the next contribution will come from. Poll after poll has shown the national press corps to be extremely liberal on issues and overwhelmingly Democratic in its politics. So why is it that the influence of the press (or, for that matter, of the huge, liberal foundations that have funded the Brennan Center and other campaign-reform groups with multimillions), does not seem to bother him?

Mr. Rosenkranz ultimately tips his hand when he complains (ignoring the unions’ in-kind contributions) that labor unions are outspent by corporations; that the defense industry outspends disarmament groups; that the energy and natural-resources industries outspend environmental groups; and that the NRA outspends handgun-control groups. At last we come to the real problem as far as Mr. Rosenkranz is concerned: it is not campaign finance, it is conservatism.

In fact, supporters of the NRA regularly outvote handgun-control groups; most Americans favor a strong national defense; and people who rely on timber and mining jobs, or those who like cheap gasoline, might well prefer the views held by energy and resource industries to those of the Sierra Club. By contrast, the campaign reforms Mr. Rosenkranz and others advocate—the imposition of limits on spending and contributions—would cut off money for candidates espousing these politically-incorrect positions while leaving intact the generally liberal influences of Hollywood, the press, the foundations, academia, labor unions, the American Association of Retired People (AARP), and other groups of this kind. Forgive me if I do not consider this reform.

Ken Whelan is properly concerned that fund-raising leads to the loss of presidential prestige and cuts into time available for other, more important matters. On the question of time, I suggest easing the burden by raising caps on individual donations, which have not been adjusted even for inflation since 1974. On the question of prestige, I can only point out that the Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations did not engage in the practices followed by the current administration. So perhaps character does matter.

Max M. Kampelman wants to crack the nut by helping candidates get their message to the electorate, a big step forward from Mr. Rosenkranz’s time-worn regulatory solutions. But while Mr. Kampelman’s argument for subsidized TV time may be a good idea, such time is emphatically not “free.” Most of us recognize it as another unfunded government mandate, which will be paid for somewhere. Further, it is not at all clear that the airwaves belong to the government (Mr. Kampelman uses the friendly euphemism, “all of us”) rather than to the companies that have invested millions to give them their value. Free TV time is merely another form of subsidy, with private choices replaced by a government bureaucracy in charge of appropriating and allocating time.

Is it a good idea to turn the dissemination of political ideas over to the government in this fashion? Reformers such as Mr. Rosenkranz think so. He concludes by saying that “there are certain things in life too important to entrust to the free market.” Of course. Which is why elections are won with votes, not auctioned off to the highest bidder. But there are also some things that are too important to be entrusted to government, and speech about public issues and candidates for office is one of them. That is why we have a First Amendment, and it is why we need to stop the schemes and bureaucracies Messrs. Carrington, Rosenkranz, and Kampelman would foist upon us.

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