Friday, May 23, 2003

Politics: Addicted to Taxpayer Funds

If you thought campaign finance "reform" was bad, consider an even more appalling concept: Taxpayer-subsidized advertising against candidates and ballot initiatives. And more appallingly, this is being pushed by Republicans:

House Republicans are attempting to lift long-standing restrictions on a $1 billion anti-drug advertising program in a move that would allow the White House to use taxpayer funds to engage in partisan political activities and campaign against candidates or ballot measures favoring the legalization of drugs.

The provision was quietly tucked into a bill reauthorizing the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and is set for markup today before the House Government Reform Committee.

Currently, the office and its director, who is commonly referred to as the drug czar, are barred by law from using their annual $195 million anti-drug advertising budget for partisan, political purposes.

Under language included in a reauthorization bill authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), the prohibition would be lifted when the ONDCP director is acting to oppose an attempt to legalize the use of any illegal drug. The measure was approved last week by the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

As written, the provision would allow partisan radio, print and television ads if the purpose were to oppose the legalization of drug use. Critics said that any candidate or political party that adopts a position promoting such reforms as allowing the medical use of marijuana or reducing drug sentencing provisions could face a government-sponsored advertising campaign against them in the electoral battlefield.

Last year, for example, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) sponsored legislation that would limit federal intervention aimed at states or localities that adopted ballot measures less restrictive than current law in dealing with marijuana use. Under the eased advertising restrictions, the drug-control office could presumably use television ads against Frank, critics of the proposal said.

The impetus for this legislation, H.R. 2086, came from a controversy that developed in last year's elections, when White House Drug Czar John Walters openly used taxpayer funds to campaign against medical marijuana initiatives in Nevada and other states. The Marijuana Policy Project, a group supporting the initiatives, filed a federal ethics complaint against Walters earlier this year, charging him with violating the Hatch Act, which broadly prohibits officeholders from using their position and government resources to campaign in state elections. Last month, Nevada's attorney general formally rebuked Walters, but then held he lacked the authority to prosecute a federal official.

MPP's lobbying managed to postpone a committe vote on H.R. 2086, but that's not the end of the story. The legislation actually re-authorizes the Drug Czar's office itself, so it's likely to pass in some form. hopefully without the advertising provision. Ideally, of course, Congress would not vote to re-authorize the Drug Czar's office and the entire operation would pass into the night. There's simply no legitimate role for a government-funded lobbyist who goes around harassing states and citizens who so much as try to debate the issue of drug decrimininlization.

And if you want to extrapolate a larger theme, consider the Drug Czar's campaigning a warning sign for what will happen if the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill is ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. That bill restricts the First Amendment rights of citizens to engage in voluntary campaign activity. If the law survives, it will directly encourage further regulation in the form of taxpayer-financed campaigns. This means views not considered "mainstream" by government regulators will be shut out of the political process entirely.

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