A Simple Campaign Reform: Full Disclosure in an Hour

Every time Congress attempts to pass another

campaign-finance reform bill, it tries to bring to life a teratoid of a law yet

more Rube Goldberg–ian than its predecessor. The latest legislative fetus has

five eyes, seven arms and no feet. Soft money, hard money, state money,

national money, issue money, candidate money, party money-this is not a

campaign-finance reform law, it is a campaign-finance deform law.

One set of campaign-financing rules if your opponent is

rich, and another if he’s not? Price controls on TV ads run at certain hours of

the day, but not the rest of the time? You kiddeth me. Who can understand it,

much less enforce it? If this Supreme Court were not so dead-set against

abortions, you could count on it to do a little dilation and curettage on the monster

aborning.

This is not written to disparage the motives of the Senators

and outside organizations that have been killing themselves for years trying to

halt the buying of elections. The problem is real; it’s the solution that’s

unreal. A century of trying should have demonstrated by now that we cannot

regulate finance. What with the persistent sabotage of any kind of sane

legislation by the lawyers and the Supreme Court, plus the ability of

special-purpose organizations of every stripe and political hue to work their

way around any draftable set of regulations, no campaign-regulatory law will

stand.

John McCain is already making remarks about how he expects

that, if his bill ever becomes law, in 20 or 25 years it will have been reduced

to a nullity by people with oodles of money and great electoral zeal. If one of

the two principal sponsors of the present bill gives the thing such a short

life expectancy, we can presume that any bill which does pass Congress and is

signed by that poor excuse for a President will accomplish little more than

enlarging that lethargic, sludge-holding pond called the Federal Election

Commission.

We need a different approach, one that prescinds from

attempts to regulate the collecting and spending of campaign money. Regulation

of that kind hasn’t worked, isn’t working and won’t work.

If we can’t regulate money, we can cancel it out, nullify

its power to win elections or cause their loss for the want of it. Under such a

scheme, all restrictions on Presidential primary- and general-campaign

contributions would be abolished. Anybody and anything could give as much and

as often to any candidate or any political party. The only exception which

might be inserted into the new law would be a ban against contributions by

foreign nationals, governments or companies, although even this prohibition in

an age of such porous national boundaries may be unwise and unworkable.

The only string attached to this otherwise unfettered giving

would be a requirement that anyone or anything making a contribution, or

promising to make a contribution, to a candidate or political party must report

the contribution or the promise to the F.E.C. within one hour of doing so,

under pain of criminal and civil penalties. Likewise, independently of a

contributor, every recipient must report every contribution, or the promise of

one, within one hour to the F.E.C. Neither is an onerous condition in the

Internet era.

The F.E.C.’s work would then consist of two things. First,

it would police what’s going on to make sure that contributions and commitments

to make a contribution have been reported within the one-hour grace period. A

campaign contribution would be defined as money going to any endeavor that can

reasonably be called an effort to get somebody elected, whether or not the

candidate’s name is mentioned. There would be no false distinction between

“issue” ads and ad ads. Money for any

kind of a campaign expenditure would count, whether lawn signs, issue ads,

lapel buttons, bus rentals or nonpartisan “educational” mailings.

The F.E.C.’s second task after receiving the information

would be to see to it that all the other candidates in the race had an equal

amount of money to spend. This must be done immediately, thereby ensuring that

all the candidates have the same amount of money for their campaigns at all

times. No candidate-regardless of the source of his or her funds-would be able

to outspend any other candidate, and winning wouldn’t be due to superior

fund-raising prowess.

Under this system, a candidate would need only to raise

enough money at the beginning of the campaign to qualify for

campaign-equalization money in the primary-election period. This minimum money

qualification would sift out the crackpot candidates and wouldn’t be

burdensome, since every serious candidate has either enough of a grassroots

organization to scare up the required earnest money or (which is now illegal)

has a millionaire backer who can provide the amount needed to qualify.

Many will object to using any taxpayer money to pay for an election campaign. Government

funds are used to pay for everything else under the sun, so why not this?

Putting up money to pay for clean elections is akin to putting up money to make

sure there is no vote-stealing. It should be looked upon as an ordinary cost of

democracy.

Under this arrangement, there is no question about passing

Constitutional muster. If the Supreme Court believes that protected speech

includes giving and spending money, all that is done here is to see to it that

no candidate will have her speech drowned out by somebody else with more

dollars.

In a social situation where it seems like 5 percent of the

population now owns about 75 percent of the country, conditions are ripe for

the politics of envy, resentment and brigandage. If this campaign reform worked

as intended, the nation’s propertied interests would lose the fulcrum they’ve

had to maintain themselves in positions of power and influence.

Even those who might

agree that this is a good thing may back away from the huge costs that it may seem,

on first glance, to entail. But we don’t know it will work out that way; it

might cost very little. The knowledge that every dollar a contributor gives to

a candidate is a dollar going into his opponent’s campaign may discourage

contributions, since political gift-giving will have been made literally into a

zero-sum game. It might work out that, in the long run, such a law so

diminishes campaign expenditures that folks may want to extend it to all federal elections.

Elections run by these rules ought to be somewhat different

from the ones we’ve had for many years now. Since no one will enjoy a

significant money advantage, we ought to see a shift from how much money you

can raise to how smart you are at spending it. Assuming that the candidates’ TV

and direct-mail advertising will more or less cancel each other out, we can

expect to see much more effort put into getting out the vote and other

human-to-human campaign activities. It’s been so long since campaigns have felt

a necessity to put hands on warm bodies that the knowledge of how to do it has

been all but lost. Who knows? Before it’s over, we may yet again see torchlight

parades and hear bands playing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”