Last week, the Friends of Lane Evans Committee agreed to pay the Federal Elections Commission $185,000, to settle a lawsuit charging them with illegal campaign financing practices in two elections which returned Lane Evans to Congress. A regional labor union office was also fined under the same umbrella.
I suspect that many will be outraged over this. The supporters of Evans will continue to believe this is only a smear tactic by his opponents, trying to force him out of office. His opponents will be angry because no real criminal charges have yet (at the time of my writing this) been leveled. After all, they say, he did break the law... even if he’s not confessing, the payment of the fine surely is an admission of guilt.
Personally, I don’t want him prosecuted for violating McCain-Feingold. If that’s the only way the local Republicans can bring down this über-liberal representative from a largely über-conservative district, the Republicans have a lot more problems than the finance reform laws can help them on. They didn’t lose the last election because his supporters cheated -- if cheating guaranteed wins, we’d now have a different President. No, the district’s Republicans lost that congressional election all on their own. They had a weak candidate, no clear message, and no organization to support such a message. Finding funny money is just a lucky strike for an undeserving party.
Campaign finance reform laws are not manna for the underdog. Whether we’re talking about the McCain-Feingold law at the federal level or the proposed comparable state legislation, it is a gift to the power-mad and a bane to all who know that free speech is our inalienable right. We learned last year that the BCRA was used in an attempt to silence several campaign voices. Of course, those special interest groups managed to find a way to obey the letter of the law and violate its spirit, as always happens. Sure, the idea of limiting political campaign funding always sounds nice after you’ve listened to a year or more of ugly slurs, but free and open debate is the way we’re supposed to get to the truth.
Our state now has a private, “nonpartisan” organization pressing to erode our right to free speech. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) is planning to make it so that the only people who have a right to publicly express a political opinion are the news media and the candidates. At their website, on their “mission” page, they describe their primary aim: “Making elections more competitive by introducing fair, sensible contribution limits on individual, corporate and union, contributions, and transfers from other politicians”. Now, I ask you, who is going to say what’s “fair” and “sensible”? In a free world, where money talks, people often donate to causes they believe in, and they often donate rather large sums. If, by some miracle, I have earned real money, should I not be allowed to invest it any way I see fit? If I’m stupid enough to think that paying to get some guy into office is going to help me in the long run, shouldn’t I be allowed to waste my money? The key to making an election honest is to make it absolutely transparent. Don’t force the dealing to go underground (which it will, if you start legislating donations). Instead, force every dollar transaction out into the open.
More important, don’t make it a publicly funded game, as the ICPR also proposes. Individual taxpayers, should they wish to support a candidate, are capable of deciding to do so on their own. Requiring public campaign financing takes away that right, privilege, and responsibility. It means there will be no more genuine underdog candidates, since a small group with independent funds won’t be able to promote its guy in a meaningful dialog. It means that the major news outlets will decide who’s worth covering. It means the taxpayer will be no longer the boss of the elected -- the State is. You, as an individual constituent, will no longer have the greater voice when it comes to telling your representatives how to vote on any given issue. You’ll answer to him and his backers, not the other way around. Is this really what we want?
Look hard at the voting records of our state legislators. These are the guys who stayed up really late one week this May to push through a budget so inflated they’re still trying to figure out how much they’ve overspent, more than a month later. And, check Evans’ national record, while you’re at it. In taking them all down a peg over campaign finances, you’re elevating the ones who didn’t technically cheat at first several much larger notches in sanctimony. Iffy fiscal dealings during campaigns aren’t why we need to kick them out. We need to boot them out because they’re still a bunch of scoundrels after they’ve taken office.
Recommended reading: IlliniPundit's take on campaign finance reforms. And don't just stop at that one blog entry -- visit the rest of his site.
Update, 12 July, 2005: Evans settlement sparks reaction from Republicans and Democrats Paint me unsurprised.