Wednesday, January 11, 2006

BCRA is not working as well as it should

From my piece over on EconLib (with thanks to Russ Roberts, for letting me use his proprietary Bulls**t-to-English dictionary)

The American system of elections has long tilted toward incumbents. As public choice research has shown for decades, any "equal" limit on spending hurts challengers. Incumbents have so many nonmonetary advantages: franking privileges, free media access, committee powers, and so on. Hard money contributors are notoriously unwilling to contribute to a candidate unless that candidate is already very likely to win.

But BCRA makes it even harder for challengers to make headway against incumbents. Rather than merely regulating the source of contributions, BCRA goes much further, asserting in effect that there is too much unregulated speech. According to the BCRA, the most important time for speech to be regulated, and incredibly even outlawed entirely, is in the period 60 days before an election. Columnist George Will ("Litigating Freedom of Speech," Dec. 2, 2002, Washington Post) quotes a number of politicians who found the heat of a competitive campaign unpleasant. But rather than fight (or get out of the kitchen), incumbents preferred the BCRA solution of simply getting rid of annoying negative ads financed by soft money:

Sen. Cantwell, D-Wash.: BCRA "is about slowing political advertising and making sure the flow of negative ads by outside interest groups does not continue to permeate the airwaves."

Sen. Jeffords, I-Vt.: Issue ads "are obviously pointed at positions that are taken by you saying how horrible they are."

Sen. Daschle, D-S.D.: "Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics."

Sen. McCain, R-Ariz.: Negative ads "do little to further beneficial debate and a healthy political dialogue" and BCRA will "raise the tenor" of elections.

Will points out that "BCRA is government's—the political class'—assertion of a right to fine tune the 'tenor' of political speech, to make it 'healthy' and 'beneficial' by suppressing speech by 'outside interest groups.' "

What exactly is a "beneficial" debate? Any incumbent can give a simple answer: one the incumbent can win, or at least can dominate with superior spending power. Consider Ford, or IBM, or U.S. Steel. They would all love to have government make it harder for competitors to enter markets and challenge them to raise the quality of their products. In fact, firms make these kinds of requests all the time. Why should we be surprised that political incumbents have the same desires to be sheltered from competition?

The difference, and the problem, is that Ford doesn't get to decide what anti-trust laws it operates under. Congress does. BCRA is the evisceration of political anti-trust law, written to ensure that incumbent monopoly power over office-holding is protected. The "electioneering" BCRA outlaws within two months of an election is simply the cold, scolding wind of competition.


1 comment:

Chris Lawrence said...

"cry havoc, and let slip the hooded weasels of war"

I've got to work that phrase into a paper of my own some time.