WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest’s plan to drastically reform America’s “hopelessly out of control” campaign finance system has failed in each of the past four Congresses and been blasted by advocates on both sides of the issue.
But Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, is hoping that the fifth time will be the charm.
As he has at the start of each new Congress since 1993, Gilchrest has introduced a pair of bills that would overhaul the way federal elections are financed.
The first bill would require that any individual who donates money to a candidate must live in the candidate’s district. The second would ban outright any campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs) to candidates for federal office.
Gilchrest himself does not accept PAC money or contributions from people outside the 1st District. He thinks his proposal to ban such contributions is “pretty simple.”
Critics on both the left and the right say it’s not simple at all.
“Both strike me as not serious policy proposals,” said John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank. “Both would be blatantly unconstitutional.”
Samples argued that political spending has been protected by the courts as a form of free speech. He also said that people should be free to contribute to federal candidates from other states and districts, since those legislators’ actions affect the entire country.
“It strikes me as highly implausible that any courts are going to allow Congress to prevent individuals or groups from giving money to candidates outside their districts,” Samples said.
Gilchrest’s plan gets no better reception from campaign-finance reformers.
“It’s not clear to me why Gilchrest would think banning PAC contributions would make our elections more fair or more democratic,” said Susan Anderson, the director of the Washington office of the reform advocacy group Public Campaign.
Anderson said campaign money, from any source, distorts the political process and suggested that the best solution is public financing of campaigns.
She also dismissed the idea of limiting contributions to just individuals living in a candidate’s district.
“Is it really more fair that they get the money from a smaller economic elite inside their district or their state rather than from an economic elite nationally?” Anderson asked.
Gilchrest had answers for both of his critics. On the issue of constitutionality, he said Congress cannot be fearful of what the Supreme Court might do.
He called the notion of public financing of campaigns “intriguing at first glance. . .But it doesn’t put anybody through the rigors of testing their merit, intelligence or character.”
Gilchrest is not betting everything on his bills. He signed up Wednesday as one of 147 co-sponsors of the Shays-Meehan bill. The measure, named for Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., would ban so-called “soft money.”
While there are limits on direct contributions to candidates there is currently no limit on soft money. It is given to national political parties, which are free to spend as much as they wish on “issue ads” designed to help one candidate without actually naming him or her.
Many reform groups, such as Common Cause, are actively supporting Shays- Meehan but have not taken a position on Gilchrest’s proposals.
For his part, Gilchrest concedes that the chances for his bills are “very slim.” But he said it is important to raise the issue.
“We’ve been dropping this bill every Congress. . . We’ve also had hearings and given testimony,” he said. “I think we encourage people to be more courageous and cut the umbilical cord.
“For me to think it’s a good idea to limit your contributions. and then not to raise that issue for debate, would mean I’m either a coward or irresponsible,” he said.