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February 21, 2005
WaPo Editorial On Campaign Finance: Hair Of The Dog

Today's Washington Post editorial on campaign finance starts out promising, acknowledging that the current system has broken down so badly that -- like a car -- one wonders whether to fix it or junk it altogether. Unfortunately, as with cars, the Post allows its sentimental attachment to thirty years of disastrous post-Watergate government meddling that it opts for more repairs instead of junking the Edsel.

Take, for example, their penultimate paragraph and their favorite proposal for "overhauling" campaign-finance rules. And don't forget to bring a map to follow along:

The most powerful argument in favor of the current system, or some version of it, is helping less well-funded candidates compete for attention. Two members of the Federal Election Commission, Republican Michael Toner and Democrat Scott Thomas, have proposed raising the primary spending ceiling to as high as $200 million and letting candidates receive as much as $100 million in matching funds; they deserve credit for trying to jump-start the discussion with a plan that would address a number of flaws in the current setup. Still, there may be more effective, less expensive ways of achieving that goal. The Campaign Finance Institute has proposed giving candidates a 3 to 1 match for the first $100 of every donation, for a total potential grant of $20 million per candidate, an approach it estimates would have cost about $115 million in 2004. Candidates who accept federal funds would agree to a spending ceiling, but if a competitor opted out of the system, the limits would be raised to let them keep up. The emergence of the Internet as a fundraising tool -- one that can help propel lesser known candidates, as Howard Dean demonstrated last year -- also needs to be taken into account.

If anything this Byzantine can call itself "reform", we know the system is on the verge of collapse. How can anyone read this paragraph, let alone write it, and think this sort of regulation will actually make it easier to conduct money-free campaigns? One would have to hire a battery of lawyers and accountants just to keep up with the regulations, let alone spend the money.

As the Post notes earlier, the original impetus of campaign-finance reform came from the Watergate scandals and a desire to wash politics of money, but the reformers keep running into two realities that they refuse to accept. The first is that money will always find a way to get into the system, and the second is the First Amendment, which doesn't allow restrictions on political speech beyond that of public safety or slander. The only effect regulations like our current system or the above system have on money is where it goes and who controls it, not whether it enters the system at all. As we saw in the last election cycle, if the campaigns cannot control it, people will form outside groups to get their messages out -- and these people have little accountability for those messages. The candidates themselves get shielded from any responsibility for them at all, as they cannot coordinate with these various support groups to either promote or suppress the outside groups from the often-ridiculous allegations they espouse.

The only way to truly reform campaign financing is to quit pretending that money is the root of all political evil. Thirty years of Utopianism on campaign reform has produced nothing but successively more bitter and expensive campaigns under less control and accountability back to the candidates themselves. Junk all of the campaign reforms in favor of instant accountability and no limits on fundraising or spending. With the limits removed, 527s and PACs will fade away, bringing the cash back to the candidates, along with the accountability for the message.

It's not just that we need to fix the Edsel -- we should never have bought it in the first place.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 21, 2005 5:40 AM

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