'Reform' Is Misleading Word in Quest to Improve Our Electoral System

This is the time of year when we hear a lot about election reform. You know the mantra: special interests, too much money in politics, negative ads, public financing, etc. The problem with election reform is the same one inherent in most tax reform; namely, every time either system gets reformed, it gets worse. Each “simplification” of the tax code creates a few hundred more indecipherable pages of regulations, and each move to “clean up” politics makes our system more unwieldy and unresponsive.

The whole move to limit campaign contributions has had at least three unintended consequences (unintended, but predictable). First, it’s made money-raising the full time job of most of our politicians. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, must run every two years, and, with the smaller donation limit, he must never stop trolling for cash. Second, it’s more difficult than ever to unseat an incumbent. What with built-in name recognition and a challenger’s daunting task of raising money in small increments, it’s no wonder most reform legislation is referred to by cynical insiders as “Incumbent Protection Act.” And that leads to the third consequence of the latest wave of reforms, and that’s the rise of the rich guys in politics. Since there’s no limit to spending your own money, we’re rapidly approaching the point where only the wealthy have a realistic shot at unseating an incumbent.

The election reform movement is based, it seems to me, on some faulty premises. Foremost among them is the notion that you can remove corruption in politics by limiting contributions. According to this logic, if I want to give a million dollars to Candidate A, it means I have a special hold on him that allows me to influence his votes on legislation, which will benefit me. Of course, legislation that benefits me is not necessarily bad legislation, but that’s another story. More to the point is this: If limits were lifted and full disclosure were required, my million dollars might not buy me very much, because voters and the press would be able to call into question any seemingly inappropriate legislation designed to benefit me at the expense of others.

The other faulty premise is that smaller donations protect us from influence-peddling. In fact, they exacerbate the problem. If that same Candidate A must rely on the support of, say, teachers’ unions and the small, individual donations of their members, he is much more likely to support their agendas even if he disagrees with them. If he were to believe in a particular piece of school choice legislation, for example, might he not withhold his support to protect his contributor base? And, if so, why is it more desirable to be beholden to a group representing a special interest than an individual constituent? Why is that form of “corruption” any more desirable than building the highway close to Mr. Jones’s store because he made a big contribution?

For some, public financing is the panacea. So, under that plan, I would be told that I, as a taxpayer, must underwrite any qualifying candidate regardless of how distasteful I find his views. And how, exactly, does this “clean up” politics? Just picture it: there’s a trough of cash sitting there for anyone who fancies himself a politician. No money to raise. No need to enunciate a platform which would attract contributors. Just taxpayer dollars to play with. Goodbye, two-party system.

How about the hand-wringing over negative advertising? Surely, that problem can be fixed. Well, how? Would this mean no one would be able to criticize any one else’s positions? It’s much easier to decry negativity in political advertising than it is to specifically define what we’re trying to eliminate. Where’s the line that can’t be crossed, and who draws it?

Some reformers advocate the elimination of the 30-second commercial. Why? What will happen in one minute or two minutes or five or ten that will bring out the best in candidates? Will voters really be better informed by a 30-minute outline of a candidate’s positions if no one is watching?

“Reform” is a misleading word. It implies not just a repair but a move to an idealized perfection. Our electoral system may need some reworking, but beware of the reformers who think they can bring purity to an impure enterprise.

There’s a lot of money in election-year politics, but, as others have pointed out, we spend more on potato chips than on election campaigns. The answer is not to try to take money out of politics. That is not only impossible, it may not even be desirable. The real answer is total, absolute disclosure. Limits are arbitrary and can lead down dark and unforeseen roads. Let’s shine a bright light on the money and its sources. That, in the end, is the best protection against corruption in our political system.