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Wednesday, September 21, 2005
American Fork's Campaign Finance Rules More Rational than USA's

In 2002 a Congress with more zeal than sense passed some more of what they called campaign finance reform, and a President who would get along very nicely in Congress (not high praise) signed the bill into law. Among other things, that legislation made political party fund-raising much more difficult. After all, the purpose of the change was to limit the influence of money in politics. However, the bill did not substantially limit the activities of another sort of organization, which we have come to call the "527," after the relevant section of the IRS Code.

A 527 is an organization created to receive and disburse funds to influence the outcome of elections or other political contests. Unlike the older Political Action Committee (PAC), it generally is not bound by Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations about campaign activities and finances. It can accept contributions in any amount from any source. It must report contributions and expenditures to the IRS in detail.

A 527 cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate, and some other limits apply within 30 or 60 days of an election, but, generally speaking, a 527 can say virtually anything it wants. If it can't overtly say, "Elect Joe Schmoe to the US Senate," it can at least run television ads branding Schmoe's opponent as a wife-beater, child-abuser, draft-dodger, chain-smoker, and fugitive Nazi war criminal. The effect is the same.

Now, let's all put on our Economic 101 thinking caps and analyze the likely effects of this situation. As long as it has someplace to go, money will flow into politics as surely as water flows downhill. If it can't flow as freely as before to the parties themselves, but it can flow without restraint into 527s, where do you think it will go?

Right. To the 527s. Any interest group can have its 527s. Unlike a national party, a 527 has little incentive to restrain its rhetoric to appeal to a broad national constituency and to a wide range of interest groups, so it will tend to be more radical and aggressive than a major party. And since 527s suddenly have a lot more money than parties, it follows that overall the campaign rhetoric will be radicalized. This is what we saw in 2004. Campaign finance reform did not create Michael Moore and George Soros, for example, but it did give them top billing and center stage.

Fast forward to something like a Supreme Court nominee's confirmation hearing. Given that 527s, not parties, have the microphone and the money now, where do you suppose Senators interested in re-election will tend to look for their talking points: the party or the interest groups, with their 527s? Whom do you suppose they will try to please with their words and their votes?

Right again. So you see how a misguided effort to remove money from politics predictably fails, and at the same time radicalizes not only campaign rhetoric, but also debates and votes on Capitol Hill. We're seeing this with the John Roberts confirmation, and, make no mistake, we ain't seen nuthin' yet. (I realize there are other forces which tend to radicalize our current politics, but, at the very least, thanks to campaign finance "reform," our resistance to radicalization is seriously diminished.)

By contrast, American Fork's campaign finance rules are ideal: unlimited contributions and full disclosure. (Besides other advantages, this way also takes a lot fewer lawyers and bureaucrats.) The power and money at stake in our local politics are minimal, anyway, so some of what we see at the national level simply would not happen here. But we do have our radicals and kooks, our very own Michael Moores, not to mention a small cabal or two of manipulative cowards lurking in the shadows.

Suppose a radical or kook runs for local office. It doesn't have to be the weatherman who claims that the Japanese caused hurricane Katrina, using old Soviet technology, or the classic nut case who insists that the Apollo moon landings were fakes staged at Disney Studios. It could be someone milder, perhaps an otherwise gentle and decent fellow who somehow believes that laws prohibiting the slob in your lovely neighborhood from parking five washing machines and nine Fords on his front lawn and letting the weeds grow six feet high right up to the edge of the sidewalk your children use on their way to school - wow, that's a long sentence, where were we? - someone who believes such laws are actually the tyrannical immediate prelude to the next Holocaust.

If I thought such a dangerous candidate had a chance of winning - which he doesn't, at least in the current election - I could freely and openly contribute every dollar I could afford to his opponent, without limit. I could even fork out lots of money for ads opposing him directly, if I thought the danger merited such an approach.

No limits, full disclosure: It's the best way.

As to the cowards among us, at present we're already hearing vicious, stupid rumors about some of our current candidates, rumors designed to appeal to the overly credulously and intellectually lazy, who cannot be bothered to think about them before believing or spreading them. And we're familiar with the local version of the October Surprise, the anonymous newspaper insert or mailing which the cowards sometimes distribute just before Election Day. It may be mostly or completely false or misleading, but there is not time to refute it before Election Day, so it has the desired effect despite being both untrue and cowardly.

Our very sane local campaign finance laws cannot realistically stop such cowards. (Some good investigative reporting might.) But at least, unlike the federal rules, ours don't hand them the microphone and beg them to sing to us at the top of their lungs.

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