Did McCain-Feingold Get the Money out of Politics?

With newspapers reporting that President Obama could spend as much as a billion dollars on his reelection campaign this year, it might be a good time to reflect on the political posturing and promise-making that allowed John McCain to put his 2002 McCain-Feingold Law on the books.

If the President manages to raise and spend that much, it will be more money that all politicians in America spent on TV advertising, for all political offices, in the year when Senator McCain got his law passed.

This law, Senator McCain promised us, would “get the money out of politics.” We voters were told that we shouldn’t worry about letting the Federal Government control political speech, because the money that special interest groups were spending on political advertising  was a menace to our nation, and only the Government was qualified to protect us. (McCain apparently though that the worst problem was ads that criticized incumbent politicians like himself. His law made it a crime to run any ad critical of an incumbent during a primary or general election season.)

Conservatives mocked McCain’s claim that his law would get the money out of politics. The claim always seemed ridiculous to conservatives, because the government plays such a huge role in our lives these days that people who have money are naturally going to use their money to try to influence the process.

The government takes trillions of dollars from the taxpayers each year, and gives subsidies and welfare checks to individuals and companies the politicians like. Corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, that stay in the good graces of powerful members of Congress, can rake in enough corporate welfare to make the difference between a profit and a loss.  When, on the other hand, a company falls out of favor with the government, they run the risk of hearing a government official say something like “we’re going to keep our boot on their neck.” (President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior used those very words in reference to an oil company recently.)

Government regulations can make or break a company. I once knew a design engineer at General Motors who jokingly said that he would sell his grandmother to get a relaxation of one tenth of a mile per gallon in the government’s fuel economy regulations. The cars that GM customers want to buy tend to use more gas than the cars the government requires GM to build. The engineer who spoke to me would perfer to be able to design the kinds of cars the customers want to buy.

Whenever the government controls something, the decisions are made politically. The fuel economy standards are just one example.

Liberals overwhelmingly supported the McCain Feingold bill, and argued passionately that the bill would do exactly what McCain said; get the money out of politics. It is quite obvious today that, as usual, the predictions made by conservatives were right, and the predictions made by liberals were wrong.

If the President does manage to raise and spend a billion bucks this year, he’ll be spending more than every candidate for every office in the nation spent on TV advertising during the 2001-2002 election cycle, right before the McCain bill became law. So much for getting the money out of politics.

In 2008, just six years after the bill became law, nationwide political spending was some 5.3 billion dollars, up more than 400% from the supposedly scandalous levels of 2002. If 2002 spending was the dire threat to our way of life that Senator McCain made it sound like, we must already be living in Hell today, with spending several times as high now as it was then.

Those who want the government to become more powerful tend to be dishonest in two ways: they try to frighten us with non-existent hobgobblins from which only government, supposedly, can save us; and they promise that the government will use its new powers to do wonderful things to make our lives better.

The best way to become skeptical of politicians’ warnings and promises is to look back at the warnings and promises they were making a few years ago.

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