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Welfare politics

| Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford must have been too busy.

Or so I assumed, thumbing through the promotional literature from Americans for Campaign Reform, a new group that advocates government funding of all federal elections to the House, the Senate and the presidency.

The group's very name is a kind of prose poem of high-mindedness -- American, reformist, small "d" democratic. In the normal course of things such organizations automatically sign up Carter and Ford to sit on their honorary board as "bipartisan co-chairs."

For all I know, there's a toll-free telephone number you can call to get the ex-presidents' endorsement for the cause of the hour. ("If you're forming a commission to streamline the congressional budget process, press 1. If you're going to restore a tone of civility to our national conversation, please press 2 ... .")

Yet instead of getting a presidential-level sanction, the ACR had to descend to the merely senatorial.

The group boasts four "bipartisan honorary co-chairs," all retired senators: Democrats Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley, plus Republicans Warren Rudman, best known as sponsor and godfather of David Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court, and Alan Simpson, self-identified as "an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, gay rights and feminist issues."

The honorary board thus makes for a perfect quartet of modern bipartisanship: two liberal Democrats balanced by two liberal Republicans.

And the idea that has brought them together is, appropriately enough, simple, idealistic and not very good.

The group calls public funding of campaigns "the most important long-term public policy issue our nation faces." Replacing private campaign finance with government money, say the senators, will act as a kind of universal solvent of political corruption.

Suddenly our leaders will "be elected on their ability and character" and will "be accountable to the voters." Those voters, meanwhile, "will have confidence in their leaders" and "be energized to participate in the political process."

And it will come cheap, at least by federal-government standards. An independent commission would determine the amount of money required to mount a campaign in each district and each state.

Qualified candidates -- those who receive a predetermined number of signatures or small contributions -- would then be financed through either a block grant or by matching funds. In a bow to the Constitution, ACR acknowledges that candidates won't be required to participate. Those who prefer to raise private funds have the right to reject government money.

At current rates, the group reckons, only $1.8 billion per year, or $6 per citizen, will pay for all those federal elections and clean up U.S. politics.

You can quibble with the numbers. According to Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, right now about $4 billion is spent on federal elections each election cycle, meaning the ACR funding might be a bit skimpy.

But more importantly, you can quibble with the reasoning -- as we should with any reform whose effects are intended to be so comprehensive.

"Public funding doesn't really get at the problems that most people identify as corrupting," Smith says.

"Earmarks" in appropriation bills have received universal condemnation recently and, of course, ACR promises its reform will somehow eliminate them. Yet the most famous and wasteful of earmarks -- Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" among them -- have little connection to how campaign money is raised.

Among campaign finance reformers it's an article of faith that "independent expenditures" -- the advertising associated with so-called 527 groups -- corrupt elections. Wealthy individuals or groups, working independent of a candidate's campaign, can support one candidate over another who lacks wealthy supporters. This problem of unequal influence won't be resolved by public financing.

Nor would it change the style of campaigning itself -- spurious or negative ads, an overemphasis on the trivial and cosmetic -- which is alleged to alienate average voters.

In fact, public financing might even discourage innovators and mavericks by reinforcing the party establishment. The great insurgent movements of recent times -- Eugene McCarthy's in 1968, Ronald Reagan's in 1976 -- relied on unrestricted access to rich donors who could provide large amounts of cash quickly.

You can see why skeptics have called public funding of campaigns "welfare for politicians."

"We pretend there's no downside to these reforms," says Smith. "But there are effects that we can't foresee. And the response is always to place more restrictions on top of the restrictions."

The argument may be moot in any case. The one serious legislative proposal for public financing -- introduced by Democrats David Obey and Barney Frank -- has languished in the House since its introduction in January.

And after endorsing public financing in a TV appearance this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi backed off saying this was only her "personal opinion."

Most likely, congressional Democrats know that if they do regain the majority anytime soon, the Republican fundraising advantage will quickly vanish -- and so will the attractions of public funding.

Still, Americans for Campaign Reform is undeterred.

"The way to get legislation is to get the people worked up," said Alan Simpson at a news conference this month. "And that's what we're going to do."

Ford and Carter may yet be called upon to serve this "bipartisan" cause after all.

Andrew Ferguson, a Bloomberg News columnist, wrote speeches for President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

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