Spare Change

Real vs. phony political reforms


In his spare time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich writes books, teaches classes, and trains political candidates. On the job, he occasionally cuts deals for politically connected allies–for instance, he recently overruled the Ways and Means Committee and reinstated a $1.8 billion ethanol tax break that will benefit big-time contributor Archer Daniels Midland.

The first set of activities has attracted the scrutiny of the House Ethics Committee. The second never will. This puzzling situation makes the current fervor over political reforms important, even if most of the reformers are a bit loopy.

Ross Perot has spawned a new group of populist reformers who may do much more damage to the political process than the Common Cause crowd could ever imagine. The populist agenda, designed by freshman Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.) and veteran Sen. John McCain (R -Ariz.), championed by Perot, and now embraced by presidential contender Pat Buchanan, shows contempt for our constitutional system, would expand rather than reduce the scope of the federal government, and, if implemented, would make the reformers' much-ballyhooed "citizen legislator" all but extinct.

Portions of the agenda are mere distractions, such as Perot's plan to launch the Independence, er, Reform Party. Or abolition of the Electoral College. Or proposed bans on gifts, meals, or junkets provided by "lobbyists"–a.k.a. anyone who's not a government employee or a member of the politician's family or staff.

Limits on campaign spending, however, should set off alarms for advocates of limited government. The plans of Perot, Smith, McCain, and Buchanan differ in details but not in substance: All would limit or outlaw campaign contributions to candidates from businesses, political action committees, and parties. McCain would cap the cost of campaigns, force 60 percent of contributions to come from in state, and set aside airtime for political commercials. Smith would prevent candidates for Senate or House seats from taking any out-of-state contributions. Perot and Buchanan would preclude House candidates from accepting money from outside their districts.

Such spending limits would never pass a First Amendment challenge–the courts view campaign funding as political speech and give it strong (if not absolute) protection. And McCain's call for free or discounted political commercials makes me wonder which article of the Constitution lets Congress program the airwaves.

Buchanan's claim that out-of-state contributions corrupt the political process–or as he puts it, people in Maryland shouldn't "interfere" with elections in Virginia–suggests an ignorance about our national system of government. If the laws passed by congressional representatives from Maryland didn't also apply to Virginia, Buchanan might have a point. But if regulations championed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) would bankrupt a biotech firm in Minnesota, shouldn't the employees and owners of that company be able to give money to Waxman's opponents?

Limits on out-of-state or out-of-district contributions would expand federal power rather than shrink it. Merely verifying the residency status of every political donor would require the Federal Elections Commission to hire thousands of new investigators. And if it's going to do the job thoroughly, the FEC would also have to get IRS-like powers to dig into the financial records of every American. Thanks, Pat.

Placing further limits on campaign money would eventually shut out all but two types of candidates: incumbents, who can stay in the public eye by staging press events, and the independently wealthy, who can finance their own campaigns.

Ross Perot ran in 1992 to gratify his ego and to irritate George Bush. He was able to remain on the national radar screen because his billions bought national broadcast time. Now another billionaire, Steve Forbes, is running for president to advance a dynamic, pro-growth agenda. It might be easier to make his platform national policy if he could instead bankroll a better-known, more-articulate candidate, say, Jack Kemp, Dick Armey, or Chris Cox. But that's against the law.

Corruption is rampant in Washington. But power rather than money or "special interests" causes the corruption. Trade associations and advocacy groups set up shop on K Street because federal regulations can enrich you, bankrupt you, or send you to the slammer. As long as the feds can hand out goodies or hand down sentences, people will (and should) hire high-priced help, asking Congress to protect their interests. To clean up Washington, we must reduce the scope of the federal government to a level more consistent with the Constitution.