November 8, 2001

Election Official Talks On Campaign Reform

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The day after the 2001 elections, campaigns remained a hot topic, at least for the 60 or so political aficionados who came to hear Bradley Smith, a commissioner and future chair of the Federal Election Commission.

Starting at around 4:30 p.m. yesterday in Goldwin Smith Hall’s Auditorium D, Smith, whose visit was sponsored by Cornell’s Pre-Law Society, presented his case against campaign finance reform.

Smith began his critique by denouncing moves by advocates of campaign finance reform to use the events of Sept. 11 to promote their agenda.

Citing recent articles and editorials by such advocates as “Granny D.,” The New York Times and The Washington Post, Smith pronounced these advocates “campaign finance fanatics.”

“These people,” Smith said, “have determined that the most important thing to do when America is under terrorist attack is to spend less on defense and more on campaign finance reform. They actually blame what they call ‘government corruption’ for Sept. 11.”

The root of their so-called fanaticism, Smith explained, is that devotees of campaign finance reform are overly reliant on law to solve “all the problems that ail us.” But if they examined the historical evidence, he said, campaign finance stalwarts would see that regulation of campaign finance has never made a difference in governmental integrity or corruption levels.

“If you look at the first five presidents of the United States,” Smith said, “who were in office when there was virtually no regulation, and you look at the first five presidents who served after the 1975 Federal Election Reform Act, I don’t think anyone would say, ‘Wow! After the Federal Election Reform Act, we started getting some kickass presidents!'”

The first attempt took place following the 1896 presidential election. When Republican candidate William McKinley defeated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan by out-spending him during the election, supporters Bryan passed bills that, if signed into law, would have imposed limits on campaign spending.

“These bills were a political tactic against (the Democrats’) enemies, designed to alter the balance of political power through government regulation,” Smith said.

A subsequent attempt to regulate campaign spending, a ban on union contributions devised by Republican politicians, Smith said, ultimately backfired. In response to the ban, unions formed Political Action Committees (PACs) to raise money for campaigns; the end result was to go from a situation of ad hoc contributions to institutionalizing union involvement in politics, Smith contended. Eventually, corporations followed in the footsteps of unions, creating PACs as a way to influence the electoral process.

After providing this historical analysis of campaign finance reform, Smith specified his concerns about regulation. He began by framing his argument in terms of pragmatism.

“I oppose campaign finance reform on practical grounds,” he said.

First, Smith said, campaign finance reform helps incumbents because they have advantages–from name recognition to an increased time frame in which to campaign–over challengers, who have to rely on larger financial contributions to compensate for such advantages.

Second, he continued, “laws cannot change the fundamental realities that undergird the American system.” As examples, Smith cited the vastness of the government’s power, noting, “When the government claims so much power, people will want to influence that power, and you can’t stop that with laws.”

Smith’s third concern was that contrary to popular belief, campaign finance reform bills are likely to receive significant backing from big business.

The big business community, he explained, doesn’t rely on campaign spending nearly as much as it does on lobbying; in fact, “big business spends ten times as much on lobbying than on all other kinds of contributions combined.”

Additionally, Smith perceived constitutional problems in efforts to regulate campaign spending.

“By telling an individual you cannot spend money for speech, you stop their speech,” Smith said. “Nothing in the Constitution gives the government the right to regulate campaign finance,” he added.

Finally, Smith worried that campaign finance reform would preclude maverick runs for office by millionaires who seek to interject new issues into public dialogue.

During the question and answer session that followed Smith’s talk, one student took issue with Smith’s final point, wondering, “As the money spent in campaigns continues to increase, how can we stop people like [Michael] Bloomberg from buying elections?”

To this objection, Smith replied that “many millionaires have lost elections” even when they spend enormous amounts of money.

Wrapping up his talk, Smith urged listeners to appreciate and settle for what they have. “There is a tendency of people to always want thing to be perfect,” he said. “This system isn’t perfect, but it has served our country well.”


Archived article by Erica Gilbert-Levin