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Opinion: Editorials

National Editorial: New study crushes conventional wisdom on role of money in politics

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Opinion,Editorial,Campaign Finance

Once in a while, a treatise by an academic scholar or think-tank analyst comes along that marshals logic, history and data so effectively that it wreaks havoc with conventional wisdom, forcing new thinking on major public policy issues. Charles Murray's 1984 publication "Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980" was such a treatise, as was "Beyond the Melting Pot," by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glaser in 1963. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University today publishes a study -- "Do State Campaign Finance Reforms Reduce Public Corruption?" -- that is aimed at the heart of conventional wisdom about campaign finance reform. Professors Adriana Cordis, of the University of South Carolina Upstate, and Jeff Milyo, of the University of Missouri, leave no doubt that the answer to the query posed in their title is no. If their conclusion is correct, it would call into question the need for much of what is done by the Federal Election Commission and its state-level equivalents.

Cordis and Milyo do what no one else for or against campaign finance reform has done since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976: critically and comprehensively examine the data to determine what effect, if any, laws like the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, aka "McCain-Feingold," have on the incidence of political corruption. Due to the extreme complexity and difficulty of locating the data required and the multiplicity of factors that must be included in the analyses, Cordis and Milyo undertook a massive task. They expect and welcome the fact that opponents and advocates alike will dive deeply into the resulting data sets to make independent assessments of their work.

The Buckley decision is the fulcrum of the issue because there the court narrowly defined political corruption as criminal acts like embezzlement, bribery, misappropriation of funds and influence peddling. There must be actual corruption or its appearance, often with a demonstrable quid pro quo. The conventional wisdom underlying contemporary campaign finance reform efforts, however, assumes a far broader definition, "wherein money exerts a nebulous corrupting influence on politics," according to Cordis and Milyo. The court's view not only affords maximum protection to freedom of political speech, it also imposes on campaign finance reform advocates the burden of proving that their proposals actually prevent political corruption, narrowly defined.

Cordis and Milyo make it clear that is a burden impossible to carry. Using data obtained from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, as well as multiple federal and state databases, they employ a wide range of statistical analytical tools -- Negative Binomial Estimates, Tobit Estimates and Ordinary Least Squares, for example -- too complicated for explanation in this space. What counts is their conclusion: "We find no strong or consistent evidence that state campaign finance reform reduces public corruption. This finding is true regardless of whether the reform in question is a limit on corporate or individual contributions or some form of public financing."

Mercatus is publishing the working paper version of the study today. Expect "Cordis and Milyo" to become a staple of political conversation in the months ahead.

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