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Floors Without Ceilings

How to Reform the Campaign Finance System Without Restricting Speech

By Ira Carnihan

The problem with campaign-finance reform is that it threatens political speech, and that threat is evident in the bill co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), which has now reached an impasse in the Senate.

The bill would restrict political speech in three ways. First, by banning contributions of "soft money," McCain-Feingold would sharply restrict fund raising by political parties. The effect: less party advertising and advocacy.

McCain-Feingold would also prohibit "coordinated expenditures" by parties on behalf of candidates who contribute more than $50,000 to their own campaigns. This would cut spending by candidates on campaigns or by parties in support of their candidates.

A third provision of McCain-Feingold bill would limit spending by independent groups on advertising that mentions candidates for federal office. Such advertising, whether conducted by the Christian Coalition or the AFL-CIO, would be closely restricted during the 60-day period leading up to elections.

Consider, finally, the limits on campaign contributions that McCain-Feingold would leave untouched. Contributions by individuals would continue to be limited to $1,000 per race, while political action committees or PACs would be restricted to $5,000. Contributions by corporations would remain illegal.

The standard response of McCain-Feingold supporters to the worry that restricting the availability of funds for advertising will result in a decrease of political speech is simply to deny that limits on fund raising and spending constitute limits on political speech at all. "Money," they argue, "is not speech."

That argument, however, is difficult to take seriously in a country with 270 million people spread over a vast continent.

Any candidate speaking without amplification stands to be heard by a few hundred people at most. To be heard by any more--and to have any chance of influencing a large number of voters--the candidate's speech must somehow be broadcast or distributed.

And that requires money. In this country and in this time, to limit the amount of money that a candidate or interest group can spend to communicate is, in no metaphorical sense at all, to restrict its ability to perform this vital task.

But if that be granted, another question immediately arises: What about those candidates with little money to spend? If a simple lack of funds restricts the audience a candidate can reach, isn't that also unfair?

It is. But the answer is not to reduce the speech of those candidates with money enough to get their message across, but instead to make sure that those without adequate dollars are better able to speak out.

The best way to do that is to provide candidates with public funds. Funds could be provided in a variety of ways, such as the allocation of grants to those candidates who demonstrate their electoral viability by collecting a large number of signatures or small donations. Another possibility would be for the government to match privately raised funds with public ones, with a cap on the total public funds to be provided any single candidate.

Whatever the precise method, the goal would be to make sure that candidates have ample access to public funds. But they must also remain free to raise private funds so long as these funds are fully and immediately disclosed. Public funding should function not as a ceiling but a floor.

While providing public funding to federal candidates would not be cheap--it would run several hundred million dollars per election year--but the cost is minuscule when compared to the federal government's annual budget of $1.6 trillion. The cost is also small when one considers the price of the public cynicism generated by our current system.

A greater barrier to reform than mere cost is a shortage of political support. A combination of public funding of campaigns and an end to contribution and spending limits is unlikely to enthuse either Republicans or Democrats. Democrats are likely to feel they would be better off with both public funding and limits, while Republicans will calculate they would do better with neither.

The fact, though, that a policy of "floors without ceilings" would completely satisfy neither party is a mark in its favor, not against it. Any proposal that would fully satisfy one party would surely be rejected by the other. What is needed is an approach that addresses the concerns of both sides: Democrats' concern with equality of opportunity, and Republicans' concern with freedom.

Floors without ceilings would do just that. While it would cost each taxpayer a couple of dollars a year more than our present system, the benefit--freer, fairer elections--is surely worth the price.

Ira Carnahan is a third-year graduate student in the Department of Government.

"Providing public funding to federal candidates would not be cheap, but the cost is small compared to the price of cynicism under our current system. "

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