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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Borde-nough: Campaign finance reform: A hot topic?

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

Campaign finance reform is a hot topic in our nation’s Capitol, but politicians have temporarily shelved the issue.  Even in normal economic times, campaign finance is a topic that rarely excites voters because reforms unavoidably sound like sheep-safety schemes drawn up by wolves.  Because legislators’ constituents today find their best economic opportunities involve shopping for imported home appliances made by near-slaves for Wal-Mart and Target, campaign finance reform has been left by the wayside.

Or has it?

Looked at another way, campaign finance reform has never generated the kind of enthusiasm that it does today.

What makes this special effort hard to identify is that it goes by other names.  When Democrats pursue this kind of campaign finance reform, they call it things like “the jobs bill” or “the President’s health care plan.”  When Republicans have done it, they’ve preferred terms like “tax cuts” or “Medicare Part D.”  Both parties like the label “stimulus package”  (It sounds so sexy!).  Almost all politicians appear happy to pursue campaign finance reform when it’s called “homeland” or “national security,” or “keeping America safe” or “strong.”

If you’re having trouble seeing the “campaign finance reform” in all this, these alternative labels have done their intended work.  Officeholders use the resources at their disposal–those that belong to the public–for self-aggrandizement.  They then give a name to what they’ve done.  The ideal name, if the above examples are any clue, is easy to remember but sounds a little more like a policy than a slogan.  The deeds done by politicians in this way are expensive, but the public enjoys them.  They turn public funds into a giant campaign kitty–producing an unfortunate kind of campaign finance reform in all but name.

On the other hand, the government spends a lot of money for good reasons.  How can one distinguish campaign spending from other kinds?  One might start to answer the question by asking whether the public fisc can sustain the programs created for long enough to permit them to perform their stated objectives.

Because the amount of money in the public fisc can be changed by adding or subtracting revenue or outlays, the real issue is whether the political will exists to keep enough money in the public fisc to sustain the new spending.

Judged by those standards, probably no campaigns in history have been financed as lavishly as those of the last ten years.  The midterm elections this year look to break new records in this respect.  The United States Treasury Department reported this week that the government operated at a deficit of more than $220 billion in February, its largest-ever monthly shortfall.

The deficit this fiscal year is projected to break last year’s record of $1.4 trillion.

Deficit spending isn’t new.  Neither is the phenomenon of politicians claiming credit for their spending future Americans’ money.  What is new is that no one vested with responsibility seems to care.  It used to be possible for the parties to make political capital out of one another’s overspending, which had salutary effects on the size of government deficits.  It sounds almost quaint today, but politicians used to campaign on promises to balance the budget.

Instead, warnings about the budget are ignored.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the Senate Budget Committee on Feb. 4 that there existed a “long-run gap between government revenues and expenditures.”  But he did not add–and little attention was paid to–how short-term behavior might change that dire prognosis.

While Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Senate Financial Services Committee on Feb. 24 that future deficit projections were “above a sustainable level” and called for a “fiscal exit” from projected spending, the president and his allies pushed their health care plan.

They attempted to sell their plan as a deficit-reduction measure.  But their estimates are based on what amount to guesses as to the future behavior of private businesses involved in the scheme, including health insurers and providers.  It’s their actual future behavior that counts.  Given their heavy involvement in drafting the administration’s health care proposal and their demonstrated capacity to extract big money from government programs, there is good reason to believe savings will not materialize.

Describing the content of the health care proposal on March 9, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that “it’s going to be very, very exciting.  But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

That’s a terrible way to legislate.  But it’s a smart way to run for office, for as Pelosi must know, it’s better to save your good stuff for later on in the campaign season.