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Policy discussion and debate vouchers: Public funding conservatives can support

By Bruce Walker
web posted April 15, 2002

The Supreme Court will strike down the patently unconstitutional portions of campaign finance reform, and this decision will probably come sooner and not later. Buckley v. Valeo was not vague, the parties asking the Supreme Court to defend the First Amendment again cross the entire ideological spectrum, and the composition of the Supreme Court favors, if anything, more emphatic opposition to federal regulation of political speech.

But what then? Should conservatives wait for the next round of Democrat jihads against money in politics? Aside from obvious constitutional problems, there are two difficulties with the whole argument about "excessive" money in politics.

Consider campaign expenditures in the context of federal taxes, federal deficits, and federal spending. The per capita tax burden at the federal level is about $7,000 per year for every man, woman and child in America. The federal government until very recently routinely spent more than this, and in the process of doing so built up a federal debt equal to about $20,000 for every man, woman and child in America.

Campaign expenditures and votes are the two principal ways an individual can exercise his voice in the political process, but campaign expenditures are more critical because it is through these expenditures that policies are analyzed by those outside the system. How much do we spend in federal campaigns? Election 2000 cost about $1.5 billion or about five dollars for every man, woman and child in America.

In short, counting all the expenditures - hard money, soft money, and so on - these were less than one tenth of one percent of federal expenditures. When businesses plan on spending huge amounts of money, they do strategic planning and market surveys and many other costly activities which are effectively research on how best to use their finite resources. The ratio of research and planning to actual expenditure is not one thousand to one, and any corporate executives who did so little research before plopping down investments would be considered dangerous fools or worse.

Corporations go out of business when they are this sloppy, but government has no real competitors. Moreover, federal agencies spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nebulous activities like "public education" and "awareness" and "outreach" which are little more than self-promotion.

What liberals call campaign expenditures are also only a tiny fraction of the amount of money spent by those corporations and organizations in the information, entertainment, and education areas which reliably bolster any claims or accusations made by the liberal elitists who live in the rarified atmosphere of Manhattan, Hollywood or Washington D.C. These campaigns are more dangerous to democratic decision making because they portray fiction as fact, because they deny any agenda, and because they continue day in and day out all the time.

If conservatives could insure a fair hearing in the public mind in these areas, then campaign spending would be a minor concern, but how can we make the playing field level without offending the Constitution or placing conservatives at a hopeless disadvantage? If government is going to spend money on education and awareness, and if these expenditures are going to impact policy decisions, then why not devolve that function down to the individual citizen or taxpayer? These expenditures are theoretically for our benefit, so why not allow each citizen a "Policy Discussion and Debate Voucher"? Make that amount big enough to do some good - say $500 per year per voucher?

Allow the formation of committees, institutes, and other organizations who would be allowed to receive all or part of a citizen's voucher and to use these to try to inform the public and to influence public opinion based upon a particular and partisan point of view. Require these committees to report all receipts and to make public all expenditures, but these entities would otherwise be free to spend money on a regular basis all year round.

These activities could include asking for the defeat or election of particular candidates in the general election and also in party primaries; it could include support for referenda and recall of elected officials; it could include advocating that elected officials support a particular measure before Congress.

Allowing each citizen an equal "vote" of political activity dollars would dramatically level the playing field not just in the short campaigning season, but in the everyday national debate on economic, cultural, and social policy. The presentation of conservative viewpoints would not be limited to the crumbs thrown now and then by Hollywood or the liberal establishment, but by television programs, motion pictures, education programs and all those other areas in which conservative viewpoints have been censored and suppressed.

These activities would be free of the mercenary financial interests that so seem to trouble liberals, because the individual citizen would not be a big vested interest like the AFL-CIO or Enron, but rather the same ordinary man or woman who votes in elections. Indeed, just as liberals exhort people to register and vote, this would allow people to support with political action vouchers those causes they support.

These vouchers could also require that a value vanishing for public life be resuscitated: truth. As a condition of receiving and expending funds, political action committees would be required to be factually accurate. This would not mean "fair" or "balanced" or "even handed" - indeed, as conservatives know, that is the grandest lie of the left - but rather that the presentation be honest about those verifiable facts.

So if the Democrat National Committee wants to be eligible for political action vouchers, then it cannot say that "The President's budget would reduce funding for health and education programs" if in fact the President's budget increased spending in those areas. The same simple honesty that liberals require of corporations in their dealings with consumers would also be required of political action committees, if those committees chose to receive political action vouchers.

Truth, of course, is the other great enemy of modern liberalism, and requiring factual accuracy would be considered ghastly oppression by the left. But no one would force them to take these funds. The only limitation upon free speech would be than the DNC or the Sierra Club could not claim to be a registered political action committee obliged to tell the truth, if they were not.

Could this reform pass? It would certainly be opposed by many truly vested interests (like bureaucracies) and by liberal power centers, who rely upon wealth and position to dominate public discussions. But it would also provide countless groups who would oppose conservative positions to support this reform - there are lots of liberal kooks out there who believe that their message is being silenced by the establishment, and this would provide them with a voice.

More important, however, these reform could be a constant refrain of conservatives and Republicans in any debate over the way campaigns are conducted. Empowering each individual citizen equally has irresistible appeal. Whether it passed or not, it would shut up liberals forever on the "unfairness" of money in political campaigns.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • CFR and the road to Oceania by Bruce Walker (April 1, 2002)
    America's Constitution does allow the government to place some limits on speech, says Bruce Walker, but campaign finance reform is a step in an ominous direction
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