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Bailing Out Politicians Won’t Improve Politics

The House Administration Committee heard testimony last week on a plan to pay politicians to run for Congress. Dubbed the Fair Elections Now Act, the scheme represents a serious expansion of the government into the conduct of our elections with little chance of fulfilling the reformers’ stated goals.

Supporters predict a host of problems will disappear if the public pays for campaigns. Similar arguments (and grandiose promises) drove the adoption of Arizona’s “Clean Elections— system 10 years ago.

Like Fair Elections backers, Arizona’s reformers promised, among other things, increased public confidence in the electoral system, greater opportunities for challengers, a more moderate Legislature more in touch with constituents, and even reduced spending as special-interest influence was curbed.

Instead, Arizonans have seen some of the dirtiest campaigns on record, the public is largely unaware of this system or how it works, incumbency re-election rates remain high, the Legislature is more polarized than ever, and Arizona is facing one of the nation’s largest budget deficits.

In short, Arizona’s sweeping government oversight, control and funding of political campaigns has been an impressive failure.

Choosing hope over experience, the bill’s sponsors — Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the Senate and John Larson (D-Conn.), Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) in the House — have introduced a public funding scheme explicitly modeled, in part, on Arizona’s system and a handful of others like it.

The bill represents the leading edge of a nationwide movement to replace traditional campaigns — where citizens running for elected office work hard to attract support and voluntary donations from the public for their views and vision — with government money.

Under such a system, the ability of citizens to contribute to their chosen candidates, except in small amounts, would be limited. Freed from the need to convince citizens to financially support their campaigns, elected officials would be even less accountable to constituents, just as Arizonans have seen. In many instances, the system will act simply as a bailout for inept, lazy or unappealing candidates who can’t attract support otherwise.

The ostensible purpose of Fair Elections is to remove the temptation of elected officials to trade favors for campaign dollars. As usual, politicians prefer to restrict the ability of Americans to fully participate in the political process rather than police their own behavior — in other words, “Stop us before we’re corrupt again.— Large donors like Alan Patricof and Arnold Hiatt, who wrote in these pages to support the plan (“It’s Time to Implement Fair Elections,’— July 22), also prefer that the public pick up the tab for electing their preferred candidates.

Ultimately, however, Fair Elections suffers from the same problem underlying all campaign finance restrictions: The problem with Congress giving out special favors is not that it gives such favors to the wrong people but that it has the power to give such favors in the first place. Temptation will always be present when the government acts beyond its limited constitutional powers; when the government is handing out benefits, people will always try to influence the government to ensure that those benefits go to them.

Americans should measure this latest effort against the successes of earlier campaign finance “reforms.— With each wave of scandals, the reformers tell us their latest failure is the result of the law not restricting enough of our speech or association rights. More, as they say, always needs to be done.

Given that each “reform— adopted by Congress has given the government more control over Americans’ political activity, the temptation to control campaign speech will only increase when the government controls the funds that makes that speech possible.

In a time when Americans are cutting back and government spending is exploding, giving away the public’s money so politicians can seek to remain in office seems like a particularly callous joke. If Americans care about free speech, robust debates and independent elections, they should demand the Durbin-Specter legislation meets a swift and sure rejection.

William Maurer is an executive director for the Institute for Justice and is a lead attorney in its challenge to Arizona’s public funding plan.