Our Warped Campaign Laws

When discussing modern political philosophy, Leo Strauss was wont to say that the moderns "built on low, but solid ground." He meant that by basing their philosophy on man's lower inclinations and passions (the ancients had appealed to man's better side, his reason and virtue), they had made their politics much more stable.

Nonetheless, some have doubts about the merits of this innovation. I am confident, however, that the only way to get campaign finance laws to work, for example, is to build our laws on the lowest and most solid ground available: the rapacious calculations of politicians.

Only then will we avoid the scandal-a-day fiasco to which the 1996 Democratic fund-raising machine is currently subjecting us. As Michael Kinsley '73, who is a former Crimson executive, has repeatedly noted, the scandal has little to do with illegal behavior.

Consider the most obviously questionable money that went to Democrats last year: donations from Asian entrepreneurs such as James Riady and Johnny Chung. It seems clear that some of the bundles (collections of money from different sources given by one person or group) they gave came from foreign nationals, citizens or businesses. But these funds went to the DNC, not the Clinton-Gore campaign, and the law is at least murky on foreign contributions to parties. No obviously illegal activity here.

What about the morning coffees and the Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers at the White House? The Hatch Act does forbid executive branch employees from fundraising, and it prohibits all fundraising on government property. But on this score, you can pick your loophole from a number of options: (1)The Hatch Act exempts the President and Vice President from its provisions; (2) specific areas of the White House are exempt from the governmental property provision; (3) the entire act applies only to contributions to campaigns, not parties. The conclusion: No illegal activity here either.

Surely the calls that Vice President Al Gore '69 made from his office in the West Wing were illegal? Guess again. For the same reasons that the coffees and the sleepovers are legal, Gore's calls fall within the limits of the law.

These examples point to one central fact: The Democrats' guile depicts not lawlessness but unseemliness. There are very few persuasive allegations, at least for now, that campaign finance laws were widely broken last year. So were the actions of members of the Clinton administration unobjectionable?

Far from it. Even if Bill Clinton did not break the letter of the law, he stomped all over the spirit. Indeed, he confirms the adage that politicians believe with undying fervor in two causes--themselves and their ideology, in that order. It seems likely that Clinton would have done anything within the letter of the law to secure victory for himself and his agenda.

But his actions only bespeak a larger problem. The current rules provide candidates opportunities to abuse the law without breaking it. Individuals can now contribute $1,000 per election per candidate, but there are no limits on contributions to parties or independent advocacy groups. Moreover, the Supreme Court has deemed it unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds to limit the expenditures that a candidate, party or independent group can spend on political advocacy. Such half-hearted attempts to curtail spending invite candidates to weave their way around them.

So just limit the contributions to parties and independent groups and everything will be peachy keen, right? Wrong. If you establish similarly low contribution limits on parties and independent groups, the time spent fundraising will increase dramatically, money will be spent by wealthy individuals on behalf of candidates, or rich candidates will grow in number. Additionally, the occurrence of currently illegal activities such as money-laundering will likely increase.

The only real way to solve our current problems is to deregulate campaign financing. We should either sharply increase contribution limits or eliminate them altogether and couple this move with more extensive disclosure requirements. When politicians do not feel pressured to maneuver around the law to raise money, they will not turn to their party or like-minded groups for stealth support. Such a move will also ensure that the public knows who is giving to whom and will thus judge for themselves the relevancy of those donations to their electoral choices.

A deregulated system will eliminate practically all the incentives to break even the spirit of the law. This will in turn reduce the unseemliness in campaign financing and expose the remainder of it to more sunshine. Only then will we fully curtail the power of the most inextricable force in politics, the ambition of politicians.

Thomas B. Cotton is a junior living in Adams House.