Real Political Reform

by Thomas Sowell, 2/25/2002

       In its reckless disregard of the Constitution when it passed “campaign finance reform” legislation, the House of Representatives has demonstrated dramatically why we need real political reform. The First Amendment to the Constitution begins “Congress shall make no law” on several subjects, including any law “abridging freedom of speech.”
       Yet here was the House, working into the wee hours of the morning, to flat out prohibit various kinds of political speech within 30 days or 60 days of an election. Just what part of “Congress shall make no law” do they not understand?
       Sadly, they do understand. But a Constitution is no stronger than the willingness to defend it. If the voting public is easily stampeded into thinking that there is a desperate need for “campaign finance reform,” then defense of the Constitution may depend on whether the White House is willing to take the heat for opposing a popular measure during an election year.
       The last line of defense of the Constitution is the Supreme Court, but this particular set of Supreme Court justices has too often split the baby instead of taking a stand on principle. We don’t need nine more clever politicians across the street from Congress, but too often that is what we have had.
       Why is campaign finance reform so popular—and with whom? This is not something that the public is demanding. Polls repeatedly show little or no public urgency about the matter. Those most enthusiastic about campaign finance reform are the media and elected officials, backed up by various other special interests who stand to gain. What campaign finance reform restricts are public expressions of alternative sources of information and viewpoints besides those which dominate the media. Naturally, the media would love to have a monopoly, since none of these laws restricts what the media can say or when they can say it.
       Elected officials would also like to see their competition stifled. Campaign finance reform laws do not restrict what incumbents can say or do in their official capacities, which not only makes “news” but does it free of charge—or at the taxpayers’ expense, which amounts to the same thing.
       Members of Congress can lie through their teeth on television right on up to, and including, election day. But if you correct or challenge what they say with paid ads at the forbidden times, you will be violating federal law. The corrupting influence of money is nothing compared to the corrupting influence of federal laws protecting incumbents from free speech.
       Money is valuable only for what it can buy. But if incumbents get millions of dollars worth of free publicity, restrictions on spending only handicap challengers.
       The reform we really need is one that gets rid of people whose whole lives are spent getting elected and re-elected—and who think that the Constitution is just something to get around in pursuit of that goal. The idea that money is corrupting innocent politicians would be laughable if it did not lead to such dangerous legislation as campaign finance reform.
       The media constantly depict campaign contributions as bribes that get business, in particular, special treatment from elected officials. They dogmatically refuse even to consider the possibility that these contributions are tributes exacted by politicians, armed with the power of government, which can make life miserable for any business that refuses to pay up.
       Even after revelations of Vice President Al Gore’s phone calls from the White House, telling—not asking—big business leaders how much he expected them to contribute to political campaigns, the liberal media still blindly insists that we are talking about bribes, not tribute.
       The fact that businesses—including Enron—usually contribute heavily to both parties still does not get through to most of the media that they are paying protection money more often than they are likely to get special favors. Any look at the trend of ever more detailed government regulation of business over the years might also suggest that business as a whole is losing ground while it pays protection money to avoid losing still more ground.
       Career politicians are the problem, not the solution. The reform we need are term limits, so that elected officials can spend more of their time doing the public’s business, instead of making re-election their real full-time job, for which they are willing to disregard the Constitution.