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Campaign-Finance Reform Has Been a Bust

By Ryan Sager

The latest McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan "reform" recipe is missing a crucial ingredient: the McCain. Feingold et al. have introduced a bill to "repair and strengthen" the presidential public-financing system. But while Sen. John McCain supported a similar proposal in 2003, he apparently wants no part of it now. The reason is pretty simple: The plan is going to be wildly unpopular -- with voters in general, and with conservative Republican primary voters in particular.

The bad news for McCain, though, is that the very existence of this proposal -- with or without his support this time around -- highlights an inconvenient truth: The core of his domestic-policy portfolio, campaign-finance regulation, has been a bust. Politics is no less corrupt than before McCain-Feingold was passed in 2002. And, in the minds of many Americans, things have actually gotten worse.

Let's start with a look at the proposal from McCain's erstwhile allies. The presidential public-financing system, they say, is broken and weak -- thus the need for repairing and strengthening it. Why is it broken? In announcing the Presidential Public Financing Act of 2006, Feingold cited three factors: the frontloading of the primary process, the emergence of extremely wealthy candidates and the "unpopularity" of the tax check-off, where people can designate (at no cost) $3 of their tax payments to the public-financing system.

The most telling of those three factors is the third. In 2005, only 9 percent of filers elected to support the Presidential Election Campaign Fund; the number has been decreasing steadily for years. At a conference held last December by supporters of public financing, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake offered some insights into why the program is so unpopular. "People can't imagine paying their own good money to have more campaign ads sent to them," Lake said. Or, as one of her focus-group participants put it: "Why in the world would you contribute even a dollar to promote this system or promote these bastards?"

Since 1976, the federal government has spent more than $2.4 billion (in current dollars) for the public-financing system. More than $600 million has gone to each of the major parties for things like TV ads and the ridiculous beauty pageants we call nominating conventions. A full $42 million of the money went to billionaire Ross Perot. A reasonable citizen would be justified in asking: Has one cent of this been money well spent?

But now Feingold and his pals want to increase tremendously the amount of money spent on the system -- upping the matching rate from 1-to-1 to 4-to-1 for small donations candidates raise during the primaries -- and increasing how much publicly-financed candidates can spend in the general election. Most insulting to the intelligence of average Americans: They want to spend $10 million per election cycle on a propaganda campaign "educating" citizens as to why public financing is so great.

But, of course, the amount of money isn't the real problem here. A hundred million here, a hundred million there -- it's not even close to real money, at least when it comes to the scope of the federal budget.

The real problem is the increasing disconnect between the campaign-finance regulators and the general public.

First of all, there's the fact that no one in America cares about the issue, even in the slightest. Lake recounted that her firm had recently asked voters an open-ended question about what are the most important problems the president and the Congress should deal with. "Not a single voter mentioned campaign-finance reform," she said. It's safe to say there is no public clamor for the legislation Feingold and friends are pushing.

But the disconnect has a second element, which is even more important: The project of campaign-finance "reform" begins from the assumption that politicians are hopelessly corrupt; and then it bets on the prospect that a particular subset of these corrupt beasts, known as legislators, can rise above its nature and "clean up the system."

Ryan Sager ( is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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