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WASHINGTON — In opening the U.S. Senate debate on campaign-finance reform, Republican John McCain asked his colleagues to “take a risk for our country.” But his proposals would stifle, not expand, political debate in America. Congress should instead relax election controls, thereby encouraging more — not less — participation in the democratic process.

Building on his highly touted but unsuccessful run for the White House, McCain has joined Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russell Feingold to propose banning “soft money” contributions to political parties and restrict independent issue advertising close to elections. A competing proposal from Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, backed in principle by President George W. Bush, would limit soft money while leaving advertising alone. All would increase the contribution limit for candidates.

Advocates of “reform” regularly assert that there is too much money in politics and that it is corrupting the process. In fact, Americans spend too little on campaigns.

All told, some $4 billion was devoted last year to American elections — just $14.30 per person, about the cost of a CD, or two or three meals at McDonald’s. Less than $500 million of that, or $1.80 a person, was in soft money.

That hardly seems excessive for candidates for president, Congress, governor, state legislature and local government. Given the importance of these positions, and their impact on the country, Americans are terribly cheap. Why not spend the equivalent of at least two CDs on politics?

Of course, any amount of money can be misspent. But there’s no evidence that this $4 billion is “corrupting” politics.

Real bribery, with campaign cash exchanged for specific positions on legislation, is virtually unheard of. Instead, most money is given to candidates with a record of support for or promises to support a general way of thinking.

Trial attorneys and labor unions tend to back Democrats; small businesses trend Republican. Campaign cash may reinforce a candidate’s pre-existing views, but such aid rarely determines them.

People who give money may enjoy greater access to politicians, but the playing field will never be level. Those representing leading publications, labor unions, trade associations, multinational corporations, civic organizations, and political parties will always get a more serious hearing than the average citizen. Political contributions and expenditures provide a practical tool for anyone who would otherwise have little influence on the political process.

Soft money and political ads are particularly important mechanisms to promote a more competitive electoral system. The biggest campaign problem is the dominance of government by a permanent political class.

House members enjoy a re-election rate of roughly 98 percent. Senate re-election rates have averaged 90 percent over the last two decades. Congressional staff positions offer equivalent job security.

The longer legislators stay in office, the more they vote to spend. Alliances between career legislators and Washington’s permanent institutions of influence–bureaucrats, journalists, lobbyists–create an “iron triangle” that pushes government spending ever upward and regulations ever outward.

Solutions are hard to come by. Eliminating the advantages of incumbency are one, but politicians would sooner commit ritual suicide. Term limits are another, but Republicans and Democrats alike resist this step to the death.

Ensuring that challengers have an opportunity to raise sufficient campaign funds is another. While political action committees typically back incumbents of both parties to preserve their access, my Cato Institute colleague John Samples points out that parties, in contrast, “concentrate equally on vulnerable incumbents and credible challengers.” Issue ads, which criticize positions taken by candidates or their parties, generally aid challengers since incumbents have greater media access.

In any case, tinkering with campaign rules only changes the relative balance of power. Notes Samples, “Bans and limits have not suppressed the demand for favors created by the growth of government but have instead led to substitutes for direct giving to candidates.”

Indeed, PACs resulted from stringent limits on individual campaign contributions. McCain-Feingold would magnify the influence of already dominant individuals and groups, such as unions and the media. Moreover, interest groups denied the right to contribute soft money will look for new opportunities to make independent expenditures on behalf of favored candidates.

Beyond the practical electoral impact is the constitutional issue. The quintessential purpose of the First Amendment is to protect political speech, like issue ads. To ban such speech when it most matters, before an election, would reduce the U.S. Constitution’s most basic protections to a nullity.

Individuals and groups naturally spend generously to influence government because government dramatically influences their interests. The most effective way to reduce what they spend is to reduce the influence of government.

In the meantime, Congress should open the political system, eliminating contribution restrictions other than quick and complete public disclosure. McCain-Feingold is a sheep in wolf’s garb, a measure that would protect Washington’s incumbent political class rather than the American public.

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