By Carl S. Milsted, Jr.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email inviting people to a reception with Congressman Charles Taylor. To attend, an individual must first contribute at least $500 to Taylor’s campaign -- $1000 for a couple.
Buying access to your congressman…this doesn’t sit too well with many. For this reason we have Byzantine campaign finance regulations which trample upon our freedom of speech and press, and some are calling for even stricter regulations which are in obvious defiance of the First Amendment – all to fight against this kind of borderline corruption.
Unfortunately, most campaign finance reformers overlook the bigger source of corrupt campaign finances: pork barrel spending.
About a week after receiving the aforementioned email, I received a 4-color 6 page spread from the U.S. House of Representatives advertising how much pork Charles Taylor has brought to Western North Carolina – a minimum $90 million worth (only half of the items had a price tag; thus the actual dollar figure could be far higher). So, Mr. Taylor is buying votes using our increasingly bankrupt U.S. Treasury, and using Treasury funds to advertise the fact.
It may sound like I am singling out Mr. Taylor. I’m not. I may well vote for the man unless his opponent says something I really like. My beef is with the system. Similar borderline bribery and vote buying is going on around the country in virtually every congressional district.
Current campaign finance law and most proposed reforms—including total spending caps and public financing—fail to address the underlying problem. In fact, many make the problem worse!
Any effective campaign finance reform must explicitly address the power of incumbency. Incumbents can spend taxpayer dollars as a means to campaign, and can solicit funds for the privilege of access, which leads to tax loopholes, corporate welfare, and restrictions on trade.
To remedy this situation, I suggest several possible moderate reforms:
1. Individual contribution limits to challengers should be at least twice as high as those to incumbents.
2. Taxpayer funded mailings from congresscritters should cease immediately.
3. Loans to campaigns must be retired before the term of office begins. (A wealthy candidate can loan thousands to his campaign and raise the money to pay off the loan later. This makes sense as many contributions come in late. However, money received to pay off such a loan can go straight into the politician’s pocket. If the politician is holding office, this is legalized bribery.)
4. Campaign accounts should not be allowed to carry over funds between elections. This includes funds raised for the primary. The current system allows incumbents (who are rarely challenged during the primary season) to raise primary monies to spend in the general election.
5. Campaign committees should not be allowed to donate to other campaign committees.
Do these things and we will start having real campaigns each election cycle. Voting might be worth the bother.
But note that I said that the above reforms are moderate. If we really wanted to make campaigns interesting, we could go further.
1. Have term limits with teeth: no re-elections whatsoever! If you are holding office, you cannot run for office or solicit campaign contributions until your term is over. To run for multiple congressional terms, you must spend a couple of years as a private citizen between terms.
2. Cut back on the Gerrymandering. Demand that congressional districts follow county and city borders to the greatest extent possible.
3. Use approval voting. Our current “first past the post” system narrows choices down to two long before Election Day. Approval voting allows a rational choice between more than two candidates at a time.
Carl Milsted is a senior editor for The Free Liberal.