Advocates of campaign finance “reform” often claim that the laws they promote will “protect” democracy. But, in reality, the opposite is true: rather than fostering the political debate that is essential to the democratic process, the increasingly bewildering thickets of campaign finance regulations set endless traps for ordinary citizens and make retaining high-priced lawyers a necessity to participate in the political process. Even with an army of specialized lawyers, however, navigating the campaign finance jungle is far from easy. Just ask Vice President Biden.
According to a recent report in The Hill, Joe Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign will have to pay the federal government more than $219,000 as a result of its violation of federal campaign finance laws. By accepting a ride on a corporate jet and mistakenly paying only a first-class rate rather than a charter rate, Biden received an in-kind campaign contribution of $26,899 which he will have to repay. Additionally, even though Biden’s campaign aides warned donors that they could not give amounts beyond FEC limits, the campaign neglected to keep sufficient documentation and records, which resulted in more than $106,000 in excessive campaign contributions from individual donors. Although the Biden campaign tried to return some of the excessive contributions, under FEC rules it still owed $85,900 from stale checks that were never cashed by the donors.
Biden’s campaign made these mistakes even though it knew it would be audited as a result of accepting federal matching funds. Notably, Elizabeth Alexander, a spokesperson for the Vice President said, “Some repayment is commonplace after presidential campaign audits.” Apparently, violating federal campaign finance laws is a run-of-the-mill occurrence among candidates for President—an office whose occupant is ultimately responsible for enforcing those laws.
If someone like Joe Biden, a lifelong veteran of electoral politics with access to Washington’s finest specialists in campaign law—and who even had a hand in creating these laws—can still make a $219,000 mistake, then what chance do ordinary citizens have in complying with these byzantine regulations?
One should not feel sorry for the Washington insiders, and their lawyers, who can do their best to cut their way through the constantly spreading kudzu of campaign regulations. When they fail, as the Vice President did, they can afford a six-figure mistake. One should feel sorry for all the ordinary people and would-be insurgent candidates who, unlike Joe Biden, lack the experience and resources needed to navigate the campaign finance laws. The result is that these laws lock them out of participating effectively in the politicalprocess. It would be nice for “reform” advocates to explain how this “protects” our democracy.