The nation just witnessed what the OpMedia and the Commentariat like to call “bipartisan legislation.” The occasion was the two-year spending-palooza that Curator of the Senate Mitch McConnell and The Boy Ryan passed.
It was bipartisan in the sense that country club conservatives let Democrats waste $150 million on social programs, so they could waste an equal amount at the Pentagon Mall. It wasn’t a genuine compromise any more than two addicts agreeing to split stolen money between heroin and crack is a compromise.
What I’m offering is a genuine compromise. Conservatives will agree to the left’s public financing of campaigns, if the left will agree to support federal term limits.
Leftist voters have long supported term limits - see Maryland, for instance - it’s leftist incumbents who fight limits on their chair-warming harder than they ever fight for constituents. While all conservatives intensely dislike publicly financed political campaigns.
The reason is simple. Government takes my coerced tax dollars and uses it to finance candidates I don’t know or support. Yet realistically, is that any worse than the current situation in the Senate where McConnell lets my tax dollars be used to help abort babies I don’t know?
Under my compromise strangers get my money, true, but the clock is ticking on how long they can use it. Term limits is so important to reestablishing government responsiveness that an unequal deal is worth it.
Public finance usually comes with spending limits, which means it’s also an incumbent protection racket. Challengers never have enough public money to overcome the built-in name recognition advantage that goes with holding office.
That’s one reason public finance is attractive to incumbents. It helps them by making wealthy, self-funding challengers look like they’re trying to buy the election. The other reason is incumbents are lazy and don’t like raising money.
The left also likes public finance because candidates who take the king’s shilling are either prohibited from accepting any other money or are prohibited from taking contributions over a certain amount. That’s supposed to remove temptation from our weak-willed officeholders and reduce the outsized influence contributors have.
My compromise won’t limit the total amount a donor can contribute in any year. That’s because the Supremes ruled political contributions are a form of speech, so limiting contributions limits speech. But it has not escaped my attention that the only families we seem to be hearing from these days are the Soros and the Kochs.
That’s why the public finance compromise will limit what candidates can accept and spend. To keep the program from becoming food stamps for exhibitionists, the compromise will require candidates to raise a threshold amount from small donors before public financing begins.
The weakness of public finance, as we’ve seen in presidential races, is candidates can opt out of the system without any penalty. A rich candidate can far outspend the public welfare candidate who stays within the public finance system.
My solution to that is in the general election if one of the candidates opts out of the public finance system, the candidate who stays in gets his public money AND the opt-out candidate’s money, plus he can also solicit donors. A triple whammy for those who don’t play by the rules.
Equally important I’m going to insist the new public finance system apply to primaries. This is crucial. Primaries are where the incumbent advantage is the greatest. Why do you think a pustule like McConnell, whose polling numbers in Kentucky are under water, remains in office?
How can these Congressional crony conservatives routinely ignore the conservative base? Easy, they don’t fear primary opponents, because in most instances they don’t exist. Big donors won’t give to a primary opponent because they fear retribution from the incumbent. And the party apparatus attacks challengers. You have to have a large fortune you’re willing to turn into a small fortune if you decide to file against an incumbent.
News coverage focuses on how many seats change hands, but the ideological direction of a party is determined in the primary. Public financing there would encourage challengers and make incumbents more fearful of the voters they are allegedly ‘fighting for.’ If I had to choose only one, I would take primary public campaign financing over the general election.
In return for public finance, conservatives want a hard 12-year, cumulative limit on federal office and once an incumbent terms out, there’s a lifetime prohibition on paid lobbying of Congress or any federal agency.
A nation that puts a sell-by date on bottled water can certainly put a discard date on politicians. Incumbents will fight this tooth-and-nail, so it’s going to take a genuine bipartisan effort at the grassroots level to force action. What do you say leftists, are you ready for a grand compromise?
Michael Shannon is a commentator and public relations consultant, and is the author of “A Conservative Christian’s Guidebook for Living in Secular Times.” He can be reached at email@example.com.