Dishonest Campaign Reform is Worse Than None

Dishonest Campaign Reform is Worse Than None by Ron Unz
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 1, 2000

For the first time in living memory, California’s entire diverse galaxy of campaign finance reform groups has united behind a single ballot measure campaign. Surprisingly, this reform grand alliance is actually aimed at defeating a campaign finance reform proposal–namely, Proposition 34, a measure placed on the November ballot by Gov. Gray Davis and the Democrats.

Over the past 25 years, not a single major campaign reform proposal both has passed and survived legal challenge either in California or on the federal level. These decades of unbroken failure have had a perverse political effect: Practical reformers have become discouraged and left the movement to pursue other, more attainable objectives, while a core of rigid ideologues has remained behind. Such individuals share the same near-mystical goal of expelling all money from politics but indulge in fratricidal disputes over arcane doctrine and political strategy. Although sensible reformers recognize that the perfect must never become the enemy of the good, such ideas are blasphemy to all too many campaign reformers.

Under these circumstances, I would very much like to support Proposition 34. Unfortunately, the utter dishonesty of both that measure and the campaign behind it outweigh even the unrealistic views of its opponents.

Many of the provisions of Proposition 34 are practical and reasonable. Legislative and statewide non-gubernatorial candidates would have their donations capped at $ 3,000 and $ 5,000 respectively, amounts high enough to survive legal challenge but low enough to end California’s current system of legalized near-bribery, in which contribution checks for $100,000 or $200,000 are becoming the dominant political force.

The real intent of Proposition 34, however, is not to enact reasonable campaign finance laws but instead to repeal existing campaign finance laws.

Back in 1996, a coalition of reform groups led by Common Cause, the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the League of Women Voters passed a very strict campaign reform measure, Proposition 208, in a 61% landslide, despite being outspent about 20-1 by opponents. These well-funded adversaries–including the Democratic and Republican parties, major unions and corporations–then resorted to legal challenges, eventually tying the measure up in federal court on 1st Amendment grounds. With the U.S. Supreme Court having recently approved similar measures in other states, most observers give Proposition 208 an excellent chance of being revived. So the bipartisan special interests that dominate our state government quickly wrote Proposition 34 and placed it on the ballot, allowing no public comment and drafting the measure in such a way that a 51% vote in favor of Proposition 34 would overturn the previous 61% popular vote in favor of Proposition 208.

The entire campaign in favor of Proposition 34 is based on political trickery and doubtful legal maneuvers. Not having the necessary support to place the measure on the regular November ballot, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) called a “special” election for Proposition 34–on the same date as the regular November vote. The sponsors of Proposition 34 themselves picked the authors of the “no” side in the official California voter pamphlet, selecting individuals opposed to any contribution limits, thereby reinforcing their own “yes” arguments. The official title and summary produced by Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer describes Proposition 34 as establishing contribution limits, never hinting that the measure would repeal much lower limits already passed by the voters.

Furthermore, the actual substance of Proposition 34 sharply tilts the political playing field toward the Democratic Party lawyers who drafted the measure. Although Proposition 34 purports to cap legislative contributions at $ 3,000 per election, it permits each union local to separately contribute twice this amount, allowing a candidate backed by, say, the powerful California Teachers Assn. to receive a coordinated $ 300,000 within a 24-hour period if the money is simply funneled through 50 local chapters. Unions already are a powerful political force in California; Proposition 34 would render them the only donors with no effective contribution limits.

Similarly, the “soft money”–unlimited party contributions used to promote or attack candidates–so regularly denounced by national Democrats remains unrestricted by Proposition 34. Powerful California Democrats know they can raise oceans of soft money.

<P>Given these biases, the Republican Party support for Proposition 34 might seem surprising, but only if we consider political interests rather than financial interests. The highly paid consultants who control their elected Republican clients like puppet masters–as demonstrated in the huge recent scandal surrounding former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush–derive most of their income from the commissions surrounding political campaigns. A reinstatement of Proposition 208’s strict limits would sharply reduce this gravy train. They are willing to sacrifice political principle and even political power to keep their money rolling in.

Most voters view campaign finance reform as a vague good. Proposition 34 will be sold to the voters in this packaging, although it actually repeals existing campaign finance reform. We’ll see whether the voters smell this rat by election day.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, led the campaign for, Proposition 25, a campaign finance reform initiative defeated by the Democratic and Republican parties in March

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