Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Rights & Reason: Campaign Finance in Practice

A point that is often overlooked when discussing campaign finance “reform” is the ultimate objective of the alleged reformers: government financing of all political campaigns. John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute points out some of the many problems with this concept:
Campaign finance reform will undoubtedly also survive recent scandals — even the revelation of a New York City Council candidate who was apparently the first to realize that you could use donations to get matching funds and then hire those same donors as political consultants with the government money. With New York City offering four dollars of matching funds for every dollar raised, few legal investments provide that kind of return.

Others have noted that if former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Mr. Kerry and President Bush hadn't opted out of the public finance system, the program would be out of money now. Taxpayers have simply been unwilling to even redirect some of the taxes that they have to pay anyway into the system. When you have the Federal Election Commission just announcing that Lyndon LaRouche, the perennial conspiracy theorist candidate, will soon get a check from the government for $840,000, taxpayer distaste for the system is quite understandable.
The New York City story interests me. The city’s campaign finance board not only enforces the law, but tirelessly lobbies for its expansion to force candidates that opt-out of the public financing system to play by the board’s rules. Fredrick Schwarz Jr., the board’s chairman, is unapologetic about his egalitarian mission:
The purposes of the law are, among other things, to maintain an even playing field among candidates as much as is reasonable, to give serious candidates who do not have access to sources of wealth an opportunity to compete in a meaningful way, to allow candidates to compete successfully without reliance on special interest money, to give the public meaningful and timely disclosure of campaign finances, and to inform the public about issues relating to New York City campaigns. At all times, of course, guarding the public fisc must be at the front of our concerns as we study the potential impact of reform generally and of candidates’ use of public funds in particular.

I believe that the items I will discuss today support these goals and are necessary and appropriate in the continuing evolution of the New York City Program, to maintain that Program as the premier model for similar reform efforts across the country. Indeed, the Council should pride itself that by considering the proposals before you today—many of which will tighten restrictions on the very elected officials who are being asked to adopt them—the Council is once again setting an example for the rest of the country.
Mr. Schwarz, it should be noted, is senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The Brennan Center, I previously blogged, is leading the charge to defend Santa Fe, New Mexico’s “living wage” law from businessmen who consider the labor price control a violation of their rights. This is exactly the type of guy you want running campaign finance in New York—a man who opposes property rights and views the government as an engine of redistribution of wealth.

Indeed, the entire campaign finance board consists of lawyers, one of whom is also a rabbi. Until recently one of the board’s members was Pamela Jones Harbour, a former New York deputy attorney general who left the board to become a member of the Federal Trade Commission.

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