Monday, January 16, 2006

There’s No Worse Time for “Reform” Than Now

Often times, our government is criticized for moving slowly to address societal problems. But the only thing worse than government acting slowly is government acting too quickly.

Put your ear to the ground – that rumbling you hear isn’t Kirstie Alley running away from a salad bar. That sound is elected officials running away from fundraising scandals at both the state and federal level. Soon, “campaign finance reform” plans will be passed between legislators more often than bottles of Grecian Formula. Our lawmakers rightfully acknowledge the lack of public confidence in their motives, but in their rush to rehabilitate their own images, they may hastily enact unnecessary changes that erode public participation in the election process.

Lawyers have a saying that “hard cases make bad law.” Campaign finance reform advocates (both of them) are using the opportunity of “scandal” in legislatures to push their reform agendas. Normally, finance reform isn’t anywhere near the top of the public’s “to do” list. The public sees campaign finance reform as about as necessary as “Big Momma’s House II.” What isn’t clear, however, is how the reformers' plans to restrict political speech actually deal with the problems that have been uncovered. In fact, the only thing evident is that the laws as currently written are working. At the state level, Democrats Brian Burke and Chuck Chvala, and Republicans Bonnie Ladwig, and Steve Foti have all been convicted, with Scott Jensen still waiting in the wings. Who could plausibly look at the current string of convictions and conclude that the current laws aren’t effective?

Furthermore, let’s look at what these legislators have been accused of: Brian Burke was accused of shaking down lobbyists in his office and filing false per diem reports. Chuck Chvala allegedly extorted money from lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions, sent Capitol staffers out to run campaigns, and illegally coordinated campaign ads with special interests. Bonnie Ladwig and Steve Foti were found guilty of using their taxpayer-funded staffs to campaign, and Scott Jensen is accused of the same.

For the sake of argument, let’s lump all of these transgressions together (even though comparing Burke and Chvala to the rest are like comparing John Gotti to John Denver). “Campaign finance reform” as it is generally understood involves a complicated maze of fundraising limits, taxpayer money to run campaigns, and greater transparency by third party advertisers attempting to influence elections. How any of these changes would affect the crimes committed by Wisconsin legislators is unclear, at best.

How will taxpayer financed campaigns keep Brian Burke from falsifying his per diem documents? How will installing stricter contribution limits help legislative leaders resist the temptation to campaign on state time? Should we have a statute against extortion that ends with “and we really, really mean it this time?” Advocating for finance reform in the wake of these incidents is like advocating for less money in banks, so there is less temptation for crooks to rob them.

Instead of imposing a draconian new finance system, we need to look at what a good system of finance we have now. Unfortunately, the “good old days” of clean government that reform advocates like to cite likely never existed. Before our current laws of campaign limits and reporting were passed, campaigns were often funded by huge corporate financiers looking to earn government contracts and favorable legislation. All the contributions were limitless and went unreported (for an example of this, see the 1949 movie “All the King’s Men” starring Broderick Crawford). The days of “clean government” were the days of back room deals and special interests run amok. It wasn’t until 1972 that the system of contribution limits and reporting we have now was instituted, which means literally anything could have gone on before then without full public knowledge. (For a full history of finance reform law in Wisconsin, go here.)

Fast forward to today, where campaign financing is limited and transparent. Campaigns can raise money through any of three different ways; through individuals, through conduits (where individual contributions are bundled together by a third party), and through political action committees (special interest donations that are capped both in how much can be given and how much total one candidate can receive). In each of these three cases, all of these contributions are accepted and reported on campaign finance reports. So if anyone is concerned that their State Assemblywoman might be unduly influenced by a specific special interest, they are only a couple of mouse clicks away to find out exactly how much she has gotten from an individual, conduit, or political action committee.

It is because of these strict reporting requirements that the 2006 Wisconsin gubernatorial candidates can now criticize each other for money accepted by Jack Abramoff, the disgraced federal lobbyist. You’ll notice that nobody is actually accusing anyone of having committed a crime by accepting Abramoff’s money, just criticizing each others’ judgement for accepting “tainted” money from an unseemly source. This is the beauty of the current system. Ultimately, it will be the voters that judge the candidates on the wisdom of accepting Abramoff’s money, and the voters and media know that this money was accepted because of the reporting requirements that currently exist.

Of course, Governor Jim Doyle is also undergoing a separate investigation into the timing of campaign contributions and the distribution of state contracts, and whether the two are related. Again, this type of dealing, if true, is already illegal, and is known because of the reporting requirements already on the books. There is nothing being proposed that would have had any effect on this activity – giving money to try to affect contracts is illegal and will continue to be so under any new “plan.”

The current campaign finance system is better than any of the proposed reform changes because it still requires public participation in the election process. All the information is there for voters to make up their minds on specific candidates if they are willing to do their research. All the finance numbers are available to the press to report on how much is being given by who to what candidate, and what elected officials may be influenced by large giving by certain interests. If voters want to make allegations tying an elected official’s support of or opposition to a piece of legislation to specific contributions, they are able to do so – all the information is there.

For finance reformers, however, full transparency in fundraising isn’t enough. They see the whole process of fundraising as evil, and therefore want to all but end that practice, as well. Not only do they not want you to be able to contribute to a candidate of your choice if you support their ideals, they want to control how much you can hear from that candidate during an election and mandate how much of your tax money that candidate will get to run their campaign. Think back to the last campaign you lived through – are campaign ads really something you think need taxpayer support? Do we really need to subsidize mudslinging between candidates when we have other funding priorities? Campaigning is hard work, and one of the signs of a good candidate is one that is willing to do the unpleasant work of fundraising. By essentially socializing the campaign process, you are providing a government subsidy to many lazy candidates who are unwilling to do the hard work.

Also at issue to reformers are so-called “issue ads” which are paid for by anonymous third parties, many of them wealthy. These groups get together and buy ads supporting or opposing specific candidates and their identities are never known. In the past groups such as WEAC, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Indian Tribes have taken part in this “issue advocacy.” What reformers would like to do is regulate this type of political speech by requiring disclosure of the donors for these types of ads. This type of regulation of free speech (which was the main “accomplishment" of McCain-Feingold) will have the effect of chilling individuals’ right to debate candidates and issues. For reformers, less political speech is better.

There’s no question that those pushing for campaign finance reform mean well. Everyone is for “cleaning up the system.” However, the reforms advocated for by groups like Common Cause and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are an insult to voters and an assault on the First Amendment. Lawmakers are in an impossible situation – regardless of how offensive these proposed changes may be, they are unable to credibly argue against them, as they will be seen as defending the current system of corruption. So you end up with a never-ending charade of politicians saying they support "reform," when very few actually do. Nobody has the stones to stand up and explain why the current system is adequate, if given the chance to work.

Often times, reformers point to races where immense amounts of money are spent to show how “out of control” the system has gotten. What they often fail to mention, though, is that the amount of money spent has very little to do with the outcome of the election. Ask Alex Paul how much his $400,000 State Senate primary against Julie Lassa went in 2003, when she pounded him by a 68% to 32% margin. Ask Mary Panzer how her 2004 primary against Glenn Grothman went, when she spent $300,000 to lose 80% to 20%. Reformers consistently underestimate the ability of voters to make choices about candidates based on issues, trust, and likeability.

So myopic are campaign finance reformers, they don't even concede a fundamental right for individuals to support candidates with which they agree on issues. Reformers believe that monetary support for a candidate is almost always a payoff for some beneficial action that elected official has taken. Rather than believing individuals or interests support candidates with which they agree, reformers always accuse special interests of giving money in exchange for official actions. For instance, see the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's "special report" on what they consider to be a "graft tax." The WDC essentially totalled up all the property, sales, and income tax exemptions in current law and accused business groups of paying off elected officials to gain these exemptions.

Set aside the fact that most people think tax exemptions are a good thing. They stimulate economic development in areas that the state deems important. Doing away with such "big business" exemptions would increase the cost of buying a home, of diapers, and food. But more importantly, is it inconceivable that business groups support candidates that support lower taxes because they honestly believe that a smaller tax burden helps generate economic activity? The WDC doesn't think so. They believe these common sense tax exemptions were essentially purchased by big businesses solely to better their bottom line, which simply doesn't make sense. So does money follow the candidate, or do candidates follow the money? Isn't that up to voters to decide?

Of course, when reforms are enacted that limit political speech, influence will find its way into the political process in other ways. Take the Abramoff case, for instance. Jack Abramoff would set up fake non-profit front groups that would pay for travel and perks for legislators. And when that is outlawed, influence will find its way into the process in more clandestine, insidious ways that aren’t as transparent as the full reporting requirements we have now. The famous McCain-Feingold federal campaign finance reform bill passed in 2002; after which Abramoff spent millions on influencing public officials. In fact, McCain-Feingold didn’t do anything meaningful but require those phony “I approved this message” disclaimers in federal TV ads.

Needless to say, you will find an editorial in a local newspaper supporting polygamy before you will find one opposing any version of campaign finance reform. To see why, you need only to follow the influence. The less money that is raised and spent on campaigns, and the more limits on political speech there are in the political process, the more influence outlets that don’t have those restrictions will have. In other words, as political speech is pushed down, the influence of newspapers is pushed up. This isn’t necessarily a case of the news media being “biased,” it just merely shows that they are acting in their own self-interest. In fact, it has recently come under question at the federal level whether independent information outlets such as blogs are covered by the McCain-Feingold law which was supposed to limit “unregulated” political speech.

A Lexis-Nexis search of Wisconsin newspapers illustrates the length to which the print media are willing to lobby on behalf of themselves. In the last 5 years, the names “Jay Heck” and “Mike McCabe” (of Common Cause and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, respectively) have appeared 1,655 times. Divide that by the 1,825 total days there have been in the last 5 years, and you end up with .9 of a mention per day for the campaign finance reformers. Can you think of any other issue that has warranted one mention per day for five years?

Another example: Hurricane Katrina was one of the most horrific human tragedies our nation has ever seen. Since August 31st, Wisconsin papers have mentioned “Ray Nagin” and “Kathleen Blanco,” two of the central figures of the disaster, a total of 26 times combined. In that same time, Heck and McCabe have appeared in Wisconsin papers 138 times. If newspapers actually spend half the time actually reporting on the finances of candidates than they do lobbying for campaign finance reform, we would all be able to make more educated choices about the people we elect.

All of this doesn’t mean that steps can’t be taken to reduce the effect of special interests on legislation. The most meaningful reform that can be made would be to actually shrink the size of government and eliminate government programs that our state has its tentacles all over. Over the past few decades, our government has accrued more fat than Alec Baldwin. And for each area the government controls, there will be moneyed lobbyists and interests attempting to influence the system to their advantage.

Other steps can be taken to level the playing field come election time. Naturally, incumbent legislators have a huge advantage in name recognition and voter contact. This advantage is exacerbated by the lavish office accounts they can use to mail what essentially amounts to campaign literature to their constituents. While constituent contact is necessary and helpful, many of these mailings cross the line into shameless propaganda. Legislators also are able to campaign all day, every day during the election cycle and still collect their state checks. Some poor schmuck looking to run for office and spend that kind of time on voter contact either has to quit their job, or take huge amounts of time off, often unpaid. There’s no way to rectify this, but it is worth noting.

Heavy-handed campaign finance reform plans send us in the opposite way we need to be heading. We need full transparency in our elections, which leads to more voter involvement, engagement, and political discussion. We don’t need the nanny state to dictate for our virgin ears and eyes what political messages we can or can’t handle, and we certainly don’t need to spend taxpayer money on campaign TV and radio ads. Whatever “reforms” are adopted will likely do nothing to address either the illegal activity that has taken place in the recent past, or any of the temptations that lay ahead for candidates in the future. We don't need more regulation - we need more meaningful citizen and media involvement. In the end, the upcoming push will be more about image reform than campaign reform, and we will be a poorer state as a result.