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The Media's Coup: McCain 'Reform' Is A Win For Press, But Loss For Voters

on 1/7/01.

By James C. Miller III The general public is far less concerned with campaign finance reform than journalists and incumbents are. During the recent presidential election, poll after poll found the issue ranked near the bottom of voters' concerns compared to matters such as health care, education and taxes. A Portrait of America poll found the public ranked campaign finance 24th of 28 issues in order of importance, and the Gallup Poll found a majority of Americans consider it either a low priority or no priority at all. Yet it is hard to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with arguments about the evils of campaign finance. The public's attitude toward politics is not one of disinterest. It is one of despair that any reform would improve the quality of political representation. Gallup reported last October that six out of 10 people believe "no matter what new laws are passed, special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington." The interests of journalists and incumbents in campaign finance reform are transparent. By limiting the power of challengers to acquire the money to get their messages out, it increases the power of the media to be the conduit and interpreter of those messages and gives additional protection to incumbents. As amply demonstrated by my own writings and those of others, the salient characteristic of the current campaign law is its protection of incumbents against challengers. Various provisions make it very difficult for a challenger to raise enough money to overcome the incumbent's name recognition and access to funds. The incumbent 's dream, of course, would be a flat-out prohibition on campaign spending. Under that scenario, challengers remain unknown, incumbents get all the attention and volunteers and, barring some sensational scandal, citizens vote for the devil they know rather than the one they don't. So, with the media and elected officials driving the process, we are likely to end up with campaign finance reform that caters to their interests, not those of the voters. Determing how we select our representatives does matter. Having a competitive market for representation is just as important as having a competitive market for automobiles, groceries and, yes, computer operating systems. David Boies' characterization of Microsoft pales in comparison with any objective description of monopoly power in politics. Incumbents, not challengers, set the rules under which "competition" takes place. Incumbents establish the means to enforce those rules through the Federal Election Commission. They confirm some of its officials. They appropriate its operating budget, and they monitor its activities. The result is that political representatives on the whole are not nearly as responsive to voters' concerns as they would be if political markets were truly competitive. Why is the Postal Service the brunt of so many jokes about poor service? Not because it's a government enterprise, but because, at least until recently, its customers have had little choice. When did the U.S. automobile industry become significantly more responsive on quality and price - before the competition from imports, or after? Would the U.S. cell phone industry be anything like as dynamic as it is today if it were a monopoly? Do you think your fuel bills would be higher or lower if all energy sources - natural gas, oil, electricity, even wood - were owned by a single firm or managed by a cartel? Why expect anything different when it comes to politics? For the most part, well-meaning proposals such as the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan legislation could make political markets less competitive, not more. The latest version of the Senate bill would increase the limit on "hard money" contributions to political parties (which tend to funnel money to incumbents), but would not raise the limit on direct contributions to candidates (which would be particularly helpful to challengers). Moreover, the bill would make it more difficult for outside groups to support candidates and would even limit (probably unconstitutionally) the ability of individuals and groups to promote or oppose issues - the effect of which might benefit one candidate over another. If campaign finance reform were to increase the overall advantage enjoyed by incumbents, it would not necessarily be the voter's friend. When it comes to campaign finance, the media may extol the vision and foresight of reform's champions, and elected officials may, with reluctance, say, "Throw me in that briar patch." But the voting public could be taken for a ride. James C. Miller III is counselor to Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, a market-based public policy organization in Washington, D.C. He is the author of "Monopoly Politics," published by the Hoover Institution in 1999.