Friday, May 06, 2005

Diamonds From Coal - Philly City Council's Interesting Idea

this is an audio post - click to play

Philadelphia is not the first city that springs to mind when you think about cutting edge campaign finance reform, but as Anthony Twyman reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer, some members of the city council have come up with an interesting idea for creating a somewhat level playing field for some city offices.

A bill sponsored by Councilman Brian O'Neill would cap the amount that candidates can raise in a given year. Candidates for district attorney and city controller could raise up to $100,000 per year; candidates for the "row offices" of register of wills, clerk of quarter sessions, and city commissioner could raise up to $75,000 a year. Currently, there are no limits on contributions to candidates for those offices.

The bill also caps individual contributions to those races at $2,000 and doubles the current limits on contributions to mayoral and council candidates to $2,000, an amount most folks in the City of Brotherly Love can't afford.

Despite the fact that most Americans support some kind of limit on campaign spending, the black-robed wonders said back in 1976 that spending limits are unconstitutional, while limiting contributions was OK. Philly's proposed cap on fundraising totals is somewhere in the middle, and would present a novel question for the courts.

If you are a fan of fantasy baseball or football, or of professional football or basketball, you probably understand this idea perfectly - it's like a salary cap. If you let one guy or team spend more on players, they're going to win way more than the other teams. The best way to ensure competition is to make sure that no one player or team can spend their way to victory.

The same thing holds true for elections. When we allow candidates to spend unlimited sums, it kills the competition. Instead of elections being a contest of ideas or the ability to lead, they hinge on who has the most money.

Next time you hear someone blowing smoke about how the First Amendment means the right for wealthy people to flood the political arena with their candidates or message, think one thing: the New York Yankees.

(Oops. Stuart Comstock Gray of the National Voting Rights Institute already beat me to the punch with this analogy. Check out his much better-written op-ed in the Washington Times.)

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