The game of campaign finance "reform"

By Sean Frick

There is a new secret handshake among the elite in Washington. Democrats, the media, academics and a few misguided Republicans seem to have formed some sort of club that now defines acceptable behvior for the "statesmen" of the Potomac. Each Sunday morning show and interview must endure the ritual of talk about campaign finance "reform."

Cokie: "Senator, your office appears to have engaged in graft, murder, extortion and possible mail fraud. How do you reply to these charges?"
Senator: "Cokie, that's why I support the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation."
Cokie: "Oooooh."

And so it goes. With a wink-wink nudge-nudge, the chattering classes in Washington have declared themselves to be above their own actions, and just to show it, support a new law.

Most bills that the media call reform would further limit contributions from individuals, corporations, and PACs. Interestingly enough, contributions from labor unions are left untouched.

The standard explanation for reform is that there's too much money in politics. And the do-gooders in the media, academia, and a select few altruistic politicians (usually known as Democrats) are just so patriotic that they want to save America from $1,000 contributions.

But what standard are they using? Yes, more money was spent on politics in 1992 and 1988 and so on. But Americans also spent more money on yogurt in 1996 than 1992, etc. But they still spent more on yogurt than on the people who mail our Social Security checks. More money will be spent every year on politics as long as government is a growth industry.

So what about those political ads? Aren't we seeing so many of them that we are brainwashed? Political advertising accounted for less than one percent of all ads during the 1996 election cycle. That's less than was spent on potato chips.

This ignore the fundamental question: Who's to say when we have too much political advertising? What committee, commission or board could say what's just right? In a free economy, people get the products they want. And if they have the poor taste of picking Dick Gephardts and Ross Perots, that's what they get.

So what brings together the McCains, Brokaws, and Tiltons of the world? Its a power grab, pure and simple. Right now, free speech is a guarantee for everyone. But public choice analysis tells us that interest groups will always try to carve a choice cut from the lard of government. If the media can take away the right of the public to give money to candidates, then the Brokaws of the world benefit. If a candidate doesn't have the cash to air his opposing view, the media will be able to set the agenda.

For instance, has anyone added up the "free speech" given to Al Hunt? Hunt writes a column for the Wall Street Journal and appears regularly on CNN's Capital Gang, as well as other shows. He gets more time and attention on these shows than even candidates with Lippo connections. With that time comes an enormous amount of influence on opinion and policy.

What pundits like Hunt want is free speech for me, but not for thee.

Mike Trotzke

Sean Frick

Eric Seymour