Our system of campaign financing fosters subterfuge and corruption, favors wealthy candidates over those not so blessed, puts candidates on a perpetual fund-raising treadmill, and is slanted in favor of incumbents over challengers.
These problems are the direct result of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act. Although the Supreme Court has struck down significant portions of this legislation as a violation of freedom of speech, what survives has done significant damage.
The usual prescription is to limit contributions even more than we now do and to put expenditure controls on congressional as well as presidential campaigns.
Such an approach would only make things worse. In 1996 the presidential candidates of the two major parties, both of whom accepted federal funds in return for agreeing to limit direct spending, had $62 million each to spend in the general election, or 31.5 cents per person in the 1996 voting-age population--less than the price of a first-class postage stamp.
The only spending candidates control is that of their own campaigns. When that spending is limited, the spending of other groups who communicate with voters--the media and special interest groups--becomes more important. Funds that cannot be given directly to a candidate are diverted to organizations that can accept them legally and spent indirectly on behalf of the candidate.
Campaign spending in the primaries and the general election in 1995–96 for all federal offices--435 members of the House of Representatives, 33 senators, and the presidency--was about $2 billion. That's only $10 over a two-year period for each person of voting age in the United States in 1966. At the same time, the Federal Election Commission spent less than 5 percent of its funds for public disclosure of campaign contributions.
Instead of further restricting and regulating campaign financing, we should
- Abolish campaign spending limits, so that candidates themselves can communicate effectively with voters
- Abolish campaign contribution limits, so that candidates can raise more money with less time and effort, give challengers the possibility of raising the money they need to compete against incumbents, and reduce the advantage of personally wealthy candidates
- Establish real-time campaign finance reporting requirements, so that we know quickly and effectively--on the Internet in twenty-four hours--who gave what to whom