A glimpse of what lies at the core of campaign finance "reform" comes in the form of a proposed amendment to otherwise unrelated legislation. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli wants to force television stations to offer candidates for federal office the lowest advertising rates. Of course, the cheap rates wouldn't apply to ads run by individuals and private groups that criticize politicians.

In fact, across the board, campaign finance proposals seem designed to entrench the position of politicians — and to either disadvantage their critics, or to muzzle them outright.

That's not what politicians sponsoring the "reform" measures say, of course. In an op-ed piece published by the Washington Post, Sen. John McCain urged members of the House of Representatives to "take a stand for or against the corrupting influence of big-money campaign contributions."

The implication of the Arizona senator's position is that the integrity of politicians voting on campaign finance restrictions is threatened by the money they and their parties receive from contributors. Stripped of roundabout language, this leaves McCain and his allies arguing: "Stop us before we sell our votes again."

The "solution" proposed by proponents of campaign finance restrictions is to limit contributions of relatively unregulated "soft" money to political parties, and to bar private groups from running political "issue" advertisements at election time.

Soft money contributions are said to allow donors to gain access and influence with politicians by channeling cash to political parties. But the real crime of such contributions, in the eyes of sitting legislators, may be to render political campaigns competitive.

In fact, established politicians have well-cultivated donor lists of their own that aren't touched by proposed legislation. Soft money gives parties relevance independent of prominent politicians, and it helps to improve the prospects of underfunded upstarts who challenge incumbents at election time.

A study of limits on soft money already enacted at the state level says that such laws tend to help established officeholders. The report, published by the Cato Institute, found:

"[R]estrictions on how much parties can raise and contribute to their nominees hinder the ability of candidates, especially those in close races, to raise money. Such restrictions do not hurt incumbents as much as they do challengers…"

But campaign finance proposals go beyond restrictions on contributions — they would also bar private groups from voicing political opinions around election time. Legislation passed by the House and pending in the Senate would prevent companies, labor unions and advocacy organizations from running advertisements within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election that praise or criticize candidates' positions on important political issues.

"Reform" advocates complain that the groups behind the ads are trying to influence the outcome of elections. That's likely true; the primary point of expressing political views is to affect government policy, and influencing election outcomes is a fundamental way of influencing policy under a democratic system of government.

As James V, DeLong wrote in Reason magazine, "The practices branded as loopholes are not only legitimate, they are the best part of the system."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued and won over limits on political advertisements in the past, maintains that restrictions now before Congress would "unconstitutionally muzzle essential political speech."

The Center for Individual Freedom agrees, saying that "[t]here is no constitutionally valid justification for … restrictions on the direct speech of any voluntary association…"

In fact, advocates of free speech seem to be in near unanimity when it comes to questioning both the wisdom and the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions. The one traditional constituency for the First Amendment that has displayed at least split feelings over the matter is the press. Where newspapers are usually strong supporters of unrestrained speech — for good reason, considering that it's their bread and butter — more than a few editorial pages have endorsed limitations on political contributions and issue advertisements.

But it should be remembered that the Supreme Court long ago recognized that the First Amendment protects the press. By reducing the ability of independent groups to contribute to candidates and speak out on matters of public policy, "campaign finance reform" would likely increase the relative influence of the media.

So, many advocates of "reform" are perhaps a bit less pure of motive than they let on. And the flow of money into politics is more likely to make elections competitive than to act as rental fees on weak-willed politicians. That may clarify the debate, but it doesn't explain what's at its root. What motivates the flow of money into political war chests and advertising budgets?

Prof. John Lott Jr. of Yale Law School offers an answer to that question.

In a study of the growth of campaign contributions, Lott found that private expenditures increased in direct proportion to the growth of government spending. As government plays an increasingly powerful role in people's lives, people expend resources to influence the exercise of that power.

Since influencing government has become so important, Lott argues that restrictive legislation "risks merely changing the form of payments rather than really restricting the level of payments." In other words, the flow of money might well turn into under-the-table payoffs.

That means that if advocates of reform honestly want to reduce the role of money in politics rather than stifle the vibrancy of debate, they'll first have to reduce the importance of politics.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (http://www.free-market.net/).

— Arizona Daily Sun

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