Friday, December 19, 2003

Beware of Bipartisanship

The campaign finance law that the Supreme Court just (mostly) upheld is a disaster, but at least give it credit for truth in labeling. Its official name is the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act” (BCRA). The term “bipartisan” betrays what is probably the worst aspect of that law: that it further entrenches the Democrat-Republican duopoly that dominates our political system.

Democrats and Republicans have no trouble reaching the public and getting their message out. Everyone knows the two major parties. Most everyone knows who their candidates are in any major election. The viewpoints of the major party candidates will be broadcast to the public even if they barely spend a dime, because they will benefit from scads of free media. All the news networks and papers report the campaign activities, press releases, and public appearances of the Democrats and Republicans. And the candidates can parlay their free media into paid media, because more exposure means more potential supporters becoming aware of their candidacy and subsequently contributing funds.

Pity the little-known independent and third-party candidates. Rarely do they get free media, and as a result, they typically remain unknown. And being unknown, they find it difficult to grab the kind of initial attention that generates large numbers of individual donations. For little-known candidates, the best option may be to rely on one or a few “sugar daddies” who are willing to make large initial donations for the sake of publicity. Ross Perot was able to do it with his own money – but he couldn’t have used his money to fund a candidate other than himself without running afoul of the campaign finance laws. The BCRA aggravates the problem by further limiting donations and “issue ads” that could draw attention to lesser known candidates and their causes.

Let us not forget that campaign funding, like most forms of investment, eventually falls victim to diminishing returns. The initial infusions of money have a much higher return than the later ones. The new campaign finance law might succeed in reducing the total amount of money received by the major parties, but it will also reduce the money received by their smaller competitors, and the marginal impact of the reduction will be much larger for them because they are still fighting to get start-up funds. The reduction in funding to both major parties will not change their positions relative to each other, but it will improve both their positions relative to independents and other outsiders.

The two major political parties got together and agreed to place limits on political activity. And then they sold the agreement as being in the public interest. Now, if the two dominant producers of a single product got together and agreed to limit their sales, or if they successfully lobbied to place regulations on their own industry, would anyone with a brain believe for more than half a minute that their actions were motivated by a desire to serve the public interest? I think not. So why should we give the D’s and R’s any more credit? Bipartisanship is not something we should applaud; it is something we should fear.

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