The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, July 11, 2005

The Meaning of Campaign Finance Reform: Part I

Campaign Finance Reform has always struck me as a remarkably bad idea. First, I've seen no evidence that it works. Have you? But beyond that, it is dangerous.

Exhibit 1: Washington State. A state judge out in Seattle has held that comments by radio hosts in favor of a state ballot initiative to repeal a state gas tax increase are campaign contributions regulated by state law. Does the danger here even need explanation? Well, yes, maybe it does.

The judge claims that on-air comments by the radio hosts are "in-kind contributions" to the Initiative 912 campaign that had to be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission (as if listeners didn't know that the hosts were arguing in favor of Initiative 912!). And why not - surely having the press on one's side is a valuable political asset. The purpose of campaign finance laws is - is it not? - to prevent corporations, such as that which owns the radio station, from exerting "undue influence" on public policy. But of course, that would apply to all press - it will be interesting to see if the Judge will apply the same logic to the inevitable Seattle Post editorial arguing against the initiative. At that point, one of two things will become obvious - either we no longer have press freedom to write and say what we want, or the law is applied with no obvious logic against disfavored entities - which it seems are almost always those that favor less govenment.

Remember that the Philadelphia Inquirer actively solicited contributions for John Kerry in the last election. What are newspaper and broadcast editorials worth to a candidate or campaign? In this case, the judge seemed to be concerned that the talk show hosts had worked directly with the pro-initiative campaign on strategy. But how is that different that many newspapers, which meet with the candidates and then plan their editorials - of which the candidates are then told in advance. More ominously, is there any reason to limit this logic to editorials? What of news coverage, which is what most people are really complaining about when they mention "media bias." Take last year's flap with CBS and Dan Rather's fraudulent documents "proving" that GW Bush was AWOL back in his National Guard days. CBS actually worked with the Kerry campaign in developing the story; Kerry was ready with speeches and ads to take advantage of it within hours of the story airing; there seems to be little doubt that Rather and certain other CBS News persons wanted to help defeat the President.

And if disclosure doesn't seem like such a big deal - of course, I'm not disclosing who I am, just as the authors of the Federalist papers did not - why would the same logic not apply to directly limit the activity in question. That is, if the value of a news endorsement or slanted reporting is $50,000, and the state limits campaign contributions to $1000, why should we not ban the endorsement or reporting outright?

It really is time that we ordinary citizens got serious about the assault on our First Amendment rights that takes the name, "campaign finance reform." As they say at weddings, it may be time to "speak now, or forever hold your piece." Of course, the church won't fine you or even throw you in jail if you later state your piece, and the government will.

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