Campaign Financing

Owen Robinson’s latest column tackles campaign-finance reform:

There is a new push by some to use taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns. For years there has been a voluntary program in place by which taxpayers can offer some of their money for political candidates by checking a box on their tax forms and submitting the funds. These funds are set aside and offered to candidates who agree to certain fundraising and spending limits. Very few candidates accept the public funds because the spending limits that they require are too stringent for how real-world campaigns are run.

In Wisconsin, there is a new proposed law regarding public financing of elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates. This is part of an ongoing effort by some folks to make all campaigns publically funded.

The proposed law increases spending limits and makes some other tweaks, but by far, the biggest change that it makes is to use money from the general fund instead of from funds that taxpayers volunteer for that specific purpose. In other words, the bill seeks to use money that was taken from taxpayers with the threat of imprisonment instead of money that the taxpayers agreed to donate for a specific cause.

This is a monumental shift and for reasons both philosophical and pragmatic, this bill and other efforts to use taxpayer funds for political campaigns should be soundly rejected.

The philosophical reason for rejecting the publically financing of political campaigns is quite simple. Citizens should not be forced to pay for the advocacy of ideas that they oppose. Conservatives should not be forced to pay for television ads by a liberal candidate touting the glories of government controlled health care any more than a pacifist should be compelled to fund a radio campaign by a candidate who supports the Iraq War.

There is a deep gulf between being forced to fund government programs with which one disagrees and political campaigns with which one disagrees. The government programs were put in place by duly elected representatives of the citizenry. Nobody has elected the candidates running campaigns.

Beyond the philosophical reasons for rejecting publically financed campaigns, there are two extremely pragmatic campaigns. First, publically funded campaigns further strengthen the hand of incumbents in political campaigns
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Incumbent politicians enjoy a much greater ease in accessing media coverage. They can hold press conferences on things that they have done. They can send out surveys and informational mailings at taxpayer expense – with their names prominently displayed, of course. They are called upon for comments on pending issues by reporters and columnists. In short, an incumbent walks into any political race with the advantage of name recognition and coverage that can cost a challenger thousands of dollars to overcome.

Publically financed campaigns level the playing field, but only in terms of campaign spending. Since the incumbent enjoys such an advantage going into the race, the challenger will always be at a disadvantage.

Furthermore, one has to remember who sets the rules for who qualifies for public funds, how much can be spent, and on what it can be spent. Anyone na•ve enough to think that incumbents won’t twist the rules to their advantage deserves to be forced to pay for campaigns.

The great mantra of the supporters of taxpayer financing of campaigns is that it will “get the money out of politics.”

Hogwash.

The truth is that there is no moral or constitutional way to prohibit people and groups from advocating in an election. If WEAC wants to spend $2 million on television ads in support of a candidate, there is no way to stop them – nor should there be. One of the quintessential American principles is that citizens have a right to speak freely about their government. This includes advocating for or against candidates for political office.

If a candidate’s campaign is publically funded and he is permitted to spend $300,000 and a group of citizens spends another $2 million on his behalf, how is that different from today? Is the candidate any less “beholden to special interests” than if the group did the same thing under the current rules? No, not at all. The mechanics of political campaigns will remain the same.

Corrupt politicians will remain corrupt and honorable politicians will remain honorable. The only thing that will be different is that the politicians won’t have to work as hard to raise funds because the taxpayers will be forced to surrender theirs.

Like most campaign reform measures, taxpayer financed campaigns do nothing to solve the problems they purport to solve. Instead, they strengthen the hand of incumbents while creating more problems for those incumbents to “solve.”

Reject taxpayer financing of political campaigns. Instead, let’s focus on transparency and accountability. Every corrupt politician is only one election away from unemployment if the citizens will it.
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