WASHINGTON -- Memo to Democratic senators eager to vote themselves campaign subsidies in the name of combating corruption: You really should not cloak your self-serving crusade in a claim that could be called intellectual corruption.
A Senate subcommittee chaired by Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, recently held a hearing -- only Democrats attended -- on his legislation to provide government funding for Senate campaigns. Durbin's website advertised the bill as "a comprehensive response to Citizens United," a reference to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case with that title. But Durbin first introduced essentially this bill (with companion House bills to fund congressional campaigns) almost three years before the court decision to which it supposedly responds.
The legislation -- which has no chance of being enacted, but is a window into the liberal mind -- would fund the campaigns of Senate candidates by extracting a 0.5 percent tax, up to $500,000 a year, on government contractors. This has nothing to do with Citizens United, which had nothing to do with contributions to candidates or the funding of their campaigns. Citizens United said only that the First Amendment protects independent (not coordinated with campaigns) candidate-advocacy by Americans acting collectively as corporations, including -- actually, especially -- advocacy corporations, from the NRA to the Sierra Club.
Mitch McConnell, leader of Senate Republicans, correctly says that taxpayer funding of politics has been the subject of the largest, most sustained and most accurate polling in American history. The polling occurs every year when Americans have a chance to check a box that will give $3 -- without increasing their tax liabilities -- to the fund for presidential campaigns. Almost all taxpayers (91.7 percent in 2007, the last year for which there is data) refuse to participate.
Durbin says this is because it is "a largely confusing system." It involves checking a box on the income tax form.
Testifying against the Durbin bill, Cleta Mitchell, a campaign law specialist and president of the Republican National Lawyers Association, noted that actor Alec Baldwin participated in a group endorsement of the legislation. He reportedly makes hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode of "30 Rock," but he has only one reported contribution to a federal candidate or political committee in the last 12 years. Now, however, Baldwin favors forcing federal contractors to do what he so infrequently does -- to participate in politics by contributing money.
"Ironically," Mitchell said, "it is illegal under federal law for a federal contractor -- any federal contractor -- to make a contribution of his/her personal funds to any federal candidate, PAC or political party." Durbin's bill would change the statute to force federal contractors to finance the campaigns of candidates with whom they might disagree. Yet they still could not contribute voluntarily to those with whom they agree. "How," Mitchell asked, "does that possibly pass constitutional muster?"
Durbin said that he is embarrassed by how much time members of Congress spend raising money. But Mitchell said raising money is "what people in the private sector have to do. Every day." As an attorney, she said, she must market her services, attract clients and perform competently:
"I know a lot of attorneys who do say, 'It is beneath me to have to do those things, to have to ask people to hire me. ... I would just much rather have someone pay me without ever having to worry about those pesky things like whether or not I'm doing a good enough job to warrant their continued investment in me.' And those people should go to work for the government. There is nothing wrong with senators having to go out and mix among the people, and to say, 'This is what I'm doing, and I need your support to keep doing it.'"
When Durbin told Mitchell that his constituents would "overwhelmingly" support "more disclosure and transparency about where my money is coming from," she reminded him that "every contribution to your campaign over $200 is already disclosed."
Advocates of government-funded campaigns want Americans to be distressed about the supposedly shocking amount of money spent on campaigns that determine who will make and enforce their laws. Well.
Barack Obama was the first major-party candidate since the 1974 creation of the public funding option for presidential campaigns to not participate in that system. And he will not participate in 2012, when he might raise $1 billion in voluntary contributions of private money for his re-election campaign. That sum, representing healthy mass-participation in politics, is about half of the sum Americans have just spent on Easter candy.
George Will's email address is georgewill(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group