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Campaign Finance Reform:
Special Interests are us!

March 1, 2002


One of the reasons I read and listen to political commentary is to give me some clarity on why I stand where I do on issues. This prepares me to make points in social settings, neighbor discussions, client discussions, etc., in promoting our way of life. Liberals are masters of making issues personally emotional (ex., GOP “cuts” in Social Security will cause seniors to eat dog food to survive), though seldom logical. We conservatives focus on logic and seldom on the personal emotions (ex., Social Security “cuts” are cuts in growth rates, NOT cuts in total spending). We need to do better on blending the emotional/personal with the logical. I start with this explanation because trying to explain the personal/emotional aspects of conservative issues is always in the back of my mind when I write. That leads me to my April topic: Campaign Finance Reform (CFR).

First, we need to admit that CFR is a false issue. It was brought to the forefront by a GOP presidential candidate that could not muster enough votes to be an effective challenger to George W. Bush, the eventual winner. Only the press kept it alive for obvious power and control/monopolistic reasons. What are those reasons? If CFR restricts how individuals/organizations define a candidate and/or his positions then the public must rely on the editorial press to explain candidates and their positions. Bernard Kalb has clearly explained in his book on the liberal bias in the media why this should upset us. The good news is that the Kalb book actually tells us something most Americans already know and have reacted to over the last fifteen years by turning off their sets when the network news comes on (or in our house, switch over to Andy Griffith reruns).

Secondly, CFR is a campaign insiders’ issue. Those of us who actively participate in campaigns know it’s restrictions and absurdities. Most people, however, don’t understand it and don’t care about it. I have yet to see a congressman declare that in visits to his district his constituents are up in arms and insisting that CFR pass. I suspect it is for this reason that our president was able to make the signing of the bill a non-event.

Now, let’s address the emotional conservative reasons why this is bad legislation and how we explain it as such to our family and friends.

First of all, CFR assumes that money is bad. Money is not bad. It is the fundamental tool of effective communications in our way of life. When I willingly pay Wal-Mart $5 for a thermal shirt, I communicate to Wal-Mart that what they have I want and the price for what I want is acceptable. They in turn find out that they are selling the right thermal shirts. Now make it more personal: When I receive a payment from a client (or you receive your paycheck), the payor is telling me/you that what you do for him is of value to them. That, to me, is very personal. Where else do we receive such clear, positive, and immediate feedback?

Now let’s move the point to politics. When I send Congressman ABC/political group a contribution I do so to clearly communicate to him/them that Sam Harper supports him/them and (for the most part) his/their positions and I am willing to help him/them communicate to others. What is wrong about financially supporting those that support our conservative way of life? Early in the debate I was puzzled why liberals don’t see this point and now I believe I understand why. Many of their groups – NOW, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, etc. – receive government grants and donations. How many Right-to-Life groups receive government monies? I haven’t found one yet. Most liberal groups, unlike our groups, could not survive on personal and corporate contributions alone. So, many of the special interests groups being demonized by the CFR supporters actually represent you and I.

Another area of demonization in CFR is corporate contributions. When, for example, Chevron’s Political Action Committee (PAC) supports congressional candidates that support drilling in the ANWR, the press becomes apoplectic. Again, let’s make it personal. Check out your mutual fund investments. Most likely Chevron is a holding in one of them. Why shouldn’t Chevron support those candidates that believe and support Chevron’s interests? As a shareholder in Chevron, I would hold management liable if they did NOT pursue supporters for the company and its activities. So, again, the CFR supporters have “demonized” money that actually represents us!

The final arrogance of CFR is that government can make decisions very nicely without input from you and I and American organizations and companies. Congress is in Washington to represent us, “we, the people”. They are not there to decide what is best for us as only they see it. That is exactly the FDR/LBJ liberalism that has created many of the problems we have today. CFR restricts our ability to communicate our opinions with our own elected representatives and the challengers we wish to support.

Money is not an evil in campaigns. It is a necessary component for communicating to large numbers of people in a short time. The average congressional district covers a population of 647,000. To raise $2 million means that the candidate has only $3 per person to spend to get his message across. If I am a challenger to a multi-term incumbent, $3 per person is not much to work with! The $2 million has been made out by CFR supporters as obscene and a sign of corruption. They never mention the $3 per person – an amount neither obscene nor corruptible.

I am disappointed that President Bush signed CFR. Ideally, I would have preferred that he veto it, have Congress override it, take it to the Supreme Court, and have it declared unconstitutional. At that point, a 2(executive and judicial)-1(legislative) score would have made a clear message for free speech with our elected representatives and their challengers. When Bush stated that CFR would protect us from our corporations and unions supporting cause and candidates we do not support, he was wrong. Union members have no say in how their union spends campaign money. Shareholders in companies that support causes/candidates they disagree with have a right to object every Monday through Friday (except holidays) from 9:30am (eastern) – 4pm (eastern) when the stock exchanges are open.

So now that CFR has passed and is the law (at least until the Supreme Court jumps in), what can we expect? One, I believe proof of the absurdness and ineffectiveness of CFR will be shown by the lack of effort state legislatures will make to implement state versions of CFR. Secondly, CFR will promote the very point it was reportedly designed to cure: the image of corruption in federal elections. CFR creates layers of technical complexities to campaign finance. In the end, savvy consultants will figure out ways around the roadblocks. The American people will notice no differences in campaigns before CFR and after CFR. They will in turn conclude rightly that it was all just a sham and thus turn even more cynical about political campaigns. The template for this is the tax code. The constant tinkering and complexities of the tax code and the lack of visible reform has made taxes a game to beat rather than a tool for financing government.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.