Campaign Finance: Matching Candidates’ Scratch

Thomas Mann joined  former FEC chairman Brad Smith to discuss the real or perceived danger to the McCain-Feingold law, alternative methods of finance reform and more, in a week long debate for the Los Angeles Times. Read the Entire Debate

Day Four

Yes and yes. But first a digression.

Brad, in your response Wednesday to my discussion of campaign finance practices in other democracies, you missed the point. I am not arguing that we should (if we could) adopt these other regulatory regimes. Indeed, they seem especially ill-suited to our society as well as to our Constitution. Instead, I was trying to put your crocodile-tears rhetoric about suppressed political speech in some perspective. Your examples of censorship (including the trumped-up FEC vs. WRTL case) are trivial relative to routine and widely accepted practices in other democracies. Britain prohibits paid political ads and severely limits spending by candidates, parties and independent groups. That’s what I call restricting political speech.

Can you imagine living in a country that so transparently suppresses such speech? (I can and I have; political dialogue in Britain is actually quite lively.) But wait: the United Kingdom under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair has performed impressively on many of your measures of substantive government, including economic growth, unemployment, educational standards, health indicators, etc., in spite of their oppressive campaign finance regime. (And dare I remind you that France tops the world in health measures?) Perhaps trying to link single indicators of electoral arrangements (such as the degree of regulation of campaigns and political speech) to broad measures of performance is a fool’s errand. The wellsprings of economic and social performance are much more diverse and complex. Sorry I don’t have space to challenge your assertion that “campaign finance restrictions are subject to challenge because they don’t work and because there is little empirical evidence to support them.” Only a tendentious summary of the evidence could support such a claim. We will have to defer that debate to another day.

Now back to today’s subject of matching funds or, more generally, public financing. I gather you dislike public subsidies for campaigns as much as you revile regulation of contributions, expenditures and, to a lesser extent, disclosure. Here you part company with many of your allies in WRTL and McConnell v. FEC, such as the ACLU, AFL-CIO and Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan. They welcome such subsidies as a floor, not a ceiling on expenditures, as a way of bolstering challengers and increasing the level of electoral competition. You believe such resources will spring naturally from an unregulated private sector, a belief that perhaps relies a bit too much on one example — General Motors heir Stewart Mott’s financing of Gene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign against Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. (I never imagined how often that chestnut could be pulled from the fire.) The evidence supporting your belief is very hard to find.

The presidential public financing system worked well between 1976 and 1992. The fundraising arms race cooled. We saw less heavy-handed pressure on corporations by campaign and party officials to pony up; more candidates encouraged to run; most elections competitive; no outcome determined by an asymmetry in resources; and the public dollars provided to LaRouche and Agran way too small to make a dent in hurricane relief or body armor. That system fell hopelessly out of date and needs major restructuring if we are to return to those more attractive conditions. States and localities have also been pleased with their public funding initiatives. All in all, a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

Read Brad Smith’s response »

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