The Best Campaign Finance Law: Repeal Spending and Contribution Limits

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Memo to true believers in campaign finance reform: The only way to ensure fairer, freer elections is to get rid of the campaign spending laws.

Completely. Require full disclosure of all contributors, but nothing else.

Our present campaign finance laws are ridiculous. As a case in point, Ross Perot, who spent $60 million of his own money running for president in 1992, can get $32 million of taxpayers' money for a race this year if he'll hold his personal spending to less than $50,000. But if Perot's Reform Party picks somebody else to run, that candidate may not get any taxpayers' money. Or maybe he or she will get $32 million after all. The Federal Election Commission hasn't decided.

Or look at publisher Steve Forbes. He can spend a million dollars of his own money to run himself, but is not allowed to contribute it to a candidate he believes in; like Jack Kemp.

Barbra Streisand or Whoopi Goldberg can make appearances worth tens of thousands of dollars to candidates, but a successful CEO cannot give the same amount to candidates of his or her choice.

The AFL-CIO can spend $35 million on advertising against incumbent Congressmen, but to defend themselves those candidates must raise money in $1,000 or $5,000 bites.

Our current campaign laws are a failed idea; complex, ineffective, and manipulated by a political bureaucracy called the Federal Elections Commission.

The reforms currently being touted include banning political action committees (PACs), restricting "bundling" (where individuals have one person deliver their contribution checks on behalf of a group), requiring Senatorial candidates to raise 60% of their funds inside their state, and outlawing "soft money." Proponents recognize that banning PACs almost certainly is unconstitutional, so there's a fallback provision limiting their contribution to a candidate to $1,000.

The goal of all these proposals is to limit the influence of people and groups with money on the electoral process. It might work if campaigns were conducted in a vacuum. But they aren't.

Limiting the size of contributions works to the benefit of incumbents, or organization or party candidates, who already have in place the database and the organization for mass solicitation.

As Bradley A. Smith wrote in the January issue of the Yale Law Journal, "Reform proposals inherently favor certain political elites, support the status quo, and discourage grassroots political activity. Even if these proposals worked as intended, they would have an undemocratic effect on American elections." To put it differently, campaign spending laws protect incumbents and special interests.

Besides, there really is no evidence that small contributions from large numbers lead to more representative government with less corruption, or that the numbers of small donors are an indication of the sentiment of the general electorate.

Eugene McCarthy would have found it difficult at best to conduct his antiwar campaign in 1968 without the six-figure individual contributions from backers Jack Dreyfus Jr. and Stewart Mott. The two presidential candidates who have been most successful at raising money from small contributors were Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972.

Abolishing PACs may win cheers from reformers, but Francis Wilkinson, communications director for Democrat Geraldine Ferraro's unsuccessful Senate campaign, noted in a New York Times op-ed article "the impact on the 28,000 nurses who contribute an average of $46 a year to the American Nurses Association PAC to have a voice on issues like health care. ...For them, a PAC affords a convenient avenue of participation and a chance to exercise power they could not wield as individuals."

Campaign finance restrictions are a relatively recent development in American politics. Is it coincidental that their growth parallels a decline in public confidence in government? Maybe not, but certainly the campaign finance laws haven't done anything to raise confidence. And there is no evidence that we are better off because of them.

Instead of trying to fix campaign spending limitations, let's get rid of them. Let people know how much money a candidate has received and who the big contributors are, and let them make up their own minds about whether the candidate should get their vote. One thing for sure, that approach would be an improvement over what we have now.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.