Politics is perception. Nowhere is this popular maxim truer than in the case of campaign finance reform. Overall, there is startlingly scant evidence to suggest campaign contributions influence politicians in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, Sen. John McCain continues to capture the imagination of the country by pushing for the elimination of soft money contributions.
I don’t mean to diminish McCain’s goal. As long as there is a perception money influences the actions of politicians, there will always be some who doubt their motivations. At the very least, these doubts hamper effective government by supplying convenient rhetoric that contaminates debate on a whole host of issues.
This problem was strikingly obvious in last year’s presidential campaign when then-Vice President Al Gore constantly accused President George W. Bush of advocating across-the-board tax cuts solely because his wealthy contributors wanted them. Rather than this lowbrow rhetoric, the debate should have focused on what would be best for the country’s slowing economy.
Now McCain is putting pressure on Bush to push his other policy priorities in a drawer until the bill comes up for a vote. Bush has, correctly I believe, refused to back the McCain plan because it doesn’t solve the problem.
There is no doubt McCain is correct that soft money contributions, unregulated donations by corporations and labor unions, currently fuel disillusionment with the political process. But just as a loophole in the current system permits these donations, the loopholes in his plan would permit other types of patronage to enter the process.
Imagine a world without soft money. Well, even if it were all gone, there would still be many ways in which corporations could bribe politicians. Consider for instance the blurring lines between news coverage and candidate advocacy. There is nothing in the McCain plan to prevent large Internet corporations who draw large crowds to give lots of free advertising to their man.
But you don’t even have to be that imaginative to see how the problem remains. Even if the individual limits of $1,000 are the only types of contributions allowed, the potential for the appearance of collective bribing still exists. All that is required is for interest groups providing soft money to make their donations as gifts to individuals in their membership, who would in turn pass the money onto the candidate as individual donations. This type of private action is something the government cannot write a law to prevent.
What we require to totally eliminate the dangerous perception of influence is a radical departure from the idea that campaign contributions constitute free speech. We have to be willing to take a look at inventive ways to revamp the system so that special interests simply cannot donate to campaigns.
Many options are on the table. On this page, I have advocated a flat one-dollar annual voting tax on all registered voters that would be sufficient to fund reasonable campaigns.
Academics have also provided interesting alternatives. Right here at Yale, we find two of the best.
Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman has advocated a voucher plan that would give every citizen 10 dollars to donate to the candidate of their choice, no more. This system ensures the wealthy aren’t perceived as funding their choice to the relative disadvantage of the poor.
Law school professor Ian Ayres has proposed regulating information. His plan would allow unlimited donations but require they be anonymous, ensuring candidates would not know who gave them their money and therefore preventing bribes.
McCain’s plan will not solve the problem of perception associated with campaign financing. Bush is well advised to wait until he examines everything that’s out there before backing what’s been on the shelf for years.
Hopefully, he’ll be brave when he ultimately chooses one.
Phil Fortino is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns appear weekly on Fridays.