The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Campaign Finance: the Beguiling Appeal of Simple Reform

James Carville and Paul Begala have offered up a simple proposal for campaign finance reform in the Washington Monthly. I won't outline the proposal, but the Skeptic, who drew our attention to it, has some worthy comments.

The first thing to note is that Carville and Begala take what is basically a bribery scandal (Abramoff) and use it to justify campaign finance reform. But to get to the point:

In their straightforward approach, Carville and Begala present the idea with a beguiling appeal - a Ross Perotish, "just fix it," approach. The proposal is full of simple absolutes: "Not one dime." "Members of Congress cannot take anything of value from anyone other than a family member. No lunches, no taxi rides. No charter flights. No golf games. No ski trips. No nothing." "No president or member of Congress could accept a single red cent from individuals, corporations, or special interests. Period." "If an incumbent accepts so much as a postage stamp, he loses his seat. If a challenger doesn't report contributions, he loses his shot. If you cheat, you are out on your ass."

This is all designed to appeal to the typical citizen who is simply fed up with all this focus on process and money. What he wants is to just take this question off the board. But the Begala/Carville approach may not quite do the trick.

For unfortunately, this "no nuance" approach just isn't all it's cracked up to be. Do we really want to say that a well-financed challenger, with a solid chance to knock off an incumbent, will lose that chance just one week before the election (with no chance for a substitute challenger to step forward) because the campaign, due to clerical error, forgot to report a single $500 contribution? Do we really mean to say that if a campaign worker for an incumbent puts his own postage stamp on a single letter, the Congressman loses his seat? Can a congressman attend a friend's Christmas party? If so, must he reimburse the host, or pay in advance? Can a grateful constituent send him a box of chocolates for his office's assistance in solving a holdup in social security disability benefits?

The point is not that these issues can be dealt with. It is that as soon as we start dealing with them, the Carville/Begala plan starts to lose its simplistic appeal.

The Skeptic raises the more serious questions. What about outside participation? Can other people speak out about a candidate? If so, aren't we back to square one?

Carville/Begala propose that incumbents get for their campaign 80 cents in tax dollars for every dollar the challenger raises. Is that a good number? Is it fair that challengers have to spend time raising private funds, but not incumbents? Doesn't it give the incumbent a built in issue: "Unlike my opponent, I won't be beholden to anyone."

Whenever I read these types of plans - like the Ackerman/Ayres "donation booth" - like the Skeptic, I want to congratulate the authors for at least thinking outside the box. But it seems to me that all these plans are, at bottom, efforts to avoid the obvious solution - deregulation of the whole process. Of course, deregulation raises it issues - concern about the role of money, etc. Which is to say simply that there is no perfect world. But the deregulated world worked pretty well really, if you think Lincoln and Cleveland and the Roosevelts and Truman and Eisenhower were pretty good presidents; if you think that this country muddled through its first 180 years in pretty good shape.

Guys like Carville and Begala can accept anything other than the one truly simple, clearly constitutional, and frankly, traditional solution: deregulation. Deregulation is the one proposal that is off the table from the start. But perhaps the way we really take the broader issue off the table for the average citizen is to just stop putting it on the table. Let people say what they want, spend what they want, and let voters decide.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life