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McCain Shoots Himself in the Wallet

McCain's campaign-finance reform law is kneecapping him.

By Petrarch  |  February 25, 2008

Among the many, many reasons conservatives are leery of Senator McCain is his longstanding advocacy for government restrictions on free political speech, otherwise known as "campaign finance reform."  He feels so strongly on this subject that his name is inextricably linked with the most recent legislation on the subject, "McCain-Feingold".

In a marvelous illustration of poetic justice, it now appears that that very law may put a serious handicap on the Senator's long-desired run for the Presidency.

The argument for government regulation of campaign financing goes that, since it takes a preposterously huge amount of money to run a national political campaign, and since it's easier to talk a handful of really rich people into writing you a few whopping great checks than to convince thousands and thousands of ordinary folks to write you thousands and thousands of little checks, an unfair advantage is given to "malefactors of great wealth" who can manipulate our political system.

Nobody who donates $200 to a candidate expects that candidate to give their personal views a moment's thought, but if you are a politician and someone gives you $1 million, you're going to pick up the telephone any time they want to talk.

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to campaign finance regulation: laws restricting the amount each individual can give, or who/what can give at all; and laws offering free Federal money in exchange for tighter self-imposed restrictions.  McCain supports both these approaches.

Aside from the fact that many elements of campaign finance reform have been repeatedly found to be unconstitutional, there are a good many practical problems.  For one thing, as the Clintons have repeatedly demonstrated, there are plenty of ways to dodge the rules if you don't mind a little lying and cheating; you don't even have to go so far as stealing although it helps.

For another, a rich person who wants to influence politics need not hand over big bags of money to politicians; instead, he can use his money to found his own tax-free political movement, as George Soros has infamously done with  When that happens, there is no candidate who can control their actions or moderate their excesses.

Last, in some ways it makes the problem of wealth and power even more acute than before, by encouraging rich folks to run for office themselves since no law has ever prevented an individual from spending his or her own money.  The only reason people speculate about Mayor Bloomberg running for President is that he could afford to spend a billion or so of his own money promoting his candidacy.  Nobody knows how many votes he could get for a billion bucks, but it would be interesting to find out.

In some ways, though, the worst practical problem that onerous campaign finance laws cause is that they can easily back a candidate into an impossible paperwork corner.  Just such a fate has befallen Sen. John McCain.

One of the laws relating to presidential campaigns is that of Federal matching funds.  Simply put, this allows a candidate to pledge not to spend more than a regulated amount in any one state, and no more than a total of $54 million in the primary campaign, which by definition ends at the party convention, in exchange for receiving Federal matching funds.

This makes life easier on impoverished or little-known candidates.  McCain has never been little-known, but after the fiasco of last year's amnesty bill and his resulting war with conservatives, donations dried up and his campaign was riding on its uppers.  To prevent it from dying altogether, he signed up to get money from the Federal program.

Fast-forward to today.  McCain has the nomination all but in the bag.  He'd like to start directing his fire at the Democrats, but he's out of money - not that he can't get any more, but he's about to smash into the $54 million limit.  That knocks him off the air until the convention in September (this year, the GOP convention is much later than the usual July time frame).

It gets weirder.  The rules say that the FEC may permit a candidate to drop out of the program.  Dropping out removes the limit and lets him spend to his heart's content as long as (a) the candidate hasn't actually cashed any Federal checks yet, and (b) hasn't gotten any loans based on the assumption that he would get Federal funds.  McCain qualifies on both these grounds.  He can't just get out automatically, however, the FEC commissioners must vote to allow it.  But they can't.

The Federal election commission is a six-member board, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  In order to even have a meeting, there must be four of the six members present.  Right now, there are only two board members.

The Senate, being under Democratic control, has refused to consider Mr. Bush's nominees to fill the missing four slots for a long time.  The Democrats hope that a Democratic President would nominate candidates who'd take a more benign view of the Democratic candidates' peccadilloes than Mr. Bush's nominees would - and kneecapping the Republican nominee in the meanwhile doesn't hurt, either.  The FEC is stuck, and so is John McCain.

It is a wonderful thing when truly stupid ideas return to bite the people that promoted them.  Congress exempts itself from most laws they pass, so Sen. McCain isn't accustomed to living with his own laws.  For all that the public would benefit from seeing the Democrat nominees have to answer challenges from the Republican side, it gives us a very warm, fuzzy feeling to watch Sen. McCain writhe in a trap of his own making.

One can't help but think that he might have done better had he believed in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" - especially when Dr. Ron Paul has shown everybody an eminently practical, constitutional alternative to McCain's ill-considered rules.