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Campaign finance reform, revisited

By Scott Tibbs, March 22, 2013

A letter to the editor last weekend in response to my letter about campaign finance reform from a few days earlier argues that we "have never embraced an absolutist interpretation" of the First Amendment.

This is true. There are limits to First Amendment freedoms - freedom of religion does not include human sacrifice and the freedom to petition government for redress of grievances (lobbying, in other words) does not include screaming into an elected official's bedroom window through a bullhorn at 3:00 am. But we would be better off if we took a much more uncompromising position on limiting government's ability to censor free speech.

The author argues that we have a legitimate interest in ensuring our elected officials are not beholden to the people who finance their campaign. We can accomplish that through full disclosure. There was a lot of legitimate concern over "dark money" in the 2012 election cycle, because of weak reporting requirements. This led many to worry that we do not know who is funding the advertisements to support or oppose candidates, and the loyalty that inspires for the candidates who win the elections with support of contributions and independent spending.

My solution to this is to abolish all contribution and spending limits (both hard and soft money) and report every contribution and expense over $200. This would apply to the 527 groups, political action committees, political parties and campaign contributions - even independent expenditures by private individuals. The public has an interest in full disclosure of all campaign contributions and spending. Sunshine is the most effective way to fight corruption.

Some people may object to full disclosure because it exposes donors to harassment for political activity. While this is a legitimate concern and while it is true that campaigns are private rather than public entities, the public's interest in knowing who funds campaigns and the public's interest in fighting corruption overrides these concerns. And, yes, the $200 line for reporting contributions and expenditures is arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Without an arbitrary line you are forcing campaigns to report every little thing down to the $5 coffee from Starbucks.

The primary problem with campaign finance reform is far more sinister. While some people have legitimate concerns over the influence of money in politics, cynical politicians push "reform" as a way to silence opposition and protect their positions. After all, incumbents have a built-in advantage that challengers do not have - including access to the news media and government resources to promote their offices but that also expand their name ID. This is why many campaign "reform" measures (especially McCain-Feingold) could easily be called the Incumbent Protection Act. We must vigorously oppose the efforts of politicians to hold onto power by silencing political opposition.