U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) decided last week to decline the $85 million available to him in taxpayer funds for the general election. I hope all candidates eventually do the same.
The current campaign-finance regime administered by the Federal Election Commission exists to limit contributions to federal campaigns (House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and president). This regime only allows individuals to give directly to federal campaigns, who then must publicly disclose large dollar contributions. Corporations, unions and issue-advocacy groups can form political action committees, which may give certain amounts to campaigns but must also disclose their large contributions.
The presidential system of taxpayer funds and spending limits emerged in the shadow of Watergate. Congress apparently believed providing taxpayer money in exchange for spending limits in presidential primary contests and the general election was necessary to stop corruption, but never considered enacting the same limits on themselves. Wonder why.
Starting with President George W. Bush in 2000, presidential candidates have begun to decline taxpayer funds and limits in primary contests. Obama is merely the first to decline those funds and limits in a general election.
I am opposed to taxpayer funds being used for political campaigns because making candidates raise money checks extremism, provides insight into candidates’ real agendas and proves which candidates have strong support. I also have a personal stake as a taxpayer who does not want his taxes used to support a candidate I do not support. If a candidate deserves my money, I’ll write another check.
The usual suspects calling for taxpayer funding of political campaigns are starry-eyed liberals or extremist candidates – or both. Liberals who believe all problems can be solved with hugs and therapy also tend to think removing private money from politics will somehow purify the process. (It’s interesting how they believe our educational system, which is filled with problems, needs more money, but our political system needs less. Is money the root of all evil or not?) Latte-drinking liberals ignore the fact that political campaigns decide who governs, and those who govern decide who pays and who receives.
Those who pay will always want to pay less, and those who receive will always want to receive more. Therefore, they will seek to sway elections using any resource at their disposal, including money, cash, currency, dinero, moola, et cetera. Better to allow private contributions with disclosure than to ban them and create secret slush funds (remember Watergate?).
Extremist candidates call for public financing of campaigns because they can’t find anyone to give them contributions. Those with money tend to be moderate, and moderates shy away from extreme positions and the candidates who espouse them. Extremist candidates usually raise money from like-minded extremists or members of a shared ethnic or religious group. Only credible, reasonable candidates will be able to develop a large, broad-based group of contributors who will give again and again.
Private financing of political campaigns with disclosure also provides insights into the real agendas of candidates. A candidate who calls for increased gas mileage in all vehicles while taking money from Big Oil executives and Detroit’s lobbyists has to be lying to someone; is it the voters or the contributors? It is much easier to believe Obama’s calls for reform in Washington, D.C., since he does not keep money from lobbyists. Disclosure of private contributions allows voters to match words with deeds.
In fact, since Obama has so far refused to keep money from lobbyists, he has enjoyed the most “public” fundraising of all the candidates. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always been as clearheaded about campaign finance as he is now.
During the primary campaign Obama said he would work to preserve the taxpayer funding system. Now, of course, he fears the hundreds of millions of dollars groups like “Freedom’s Watch” will raise – and spend – to defeat him.
I believe we need two major reforms of our campaign-finance system. First, if a group, candidate, committee or organization does not disclose its contributions, it cannot seek to influence the political process. That includes lobbying and pseudo-political groups registered as non-profit 501(c)4s.
Second, if a group or organization does not abide by contribution limits, it cannot support or oppose a candidate. This would stop 527s from running kamikaze advertisements against candidates.
We also need fearless candidates who refuse taxpayer funds and spending limits from the beginning and throw themselves upon the generosity and support of their supporters and the American people. Obama’s change of heart smacks more of pragmatism than principle, and the appearance of hypocrisy damages his ability to call for changes in the way we fund campaigns.
It won’t be too many years, however, before progressives have the chance to unite behind a candidate who embraces the freedom that comes with disclosure and rejects the safety of arbitrary limitations. That’s a change I can believe in.
Adam Sharp owns and manages Sharp Political Consulting and lives in Strasburg.