We Americans often have a curious tendency to look at problems backward, to try to solve them by attacking the end result rather than the root cause. This is especially obvious in the health care debate, where most of the discussion seems to be focused on who will pay for health care, rather than on how to reduce health care costs.

When it comes to campaign finance reform, we’ve got it backward, too. We spend a lot of time worrying about how big donations are and where they come from, but that’s considering only one side of the equation – how much is donated, rather than how much is spent.

That’s why every time we’ve adopted an idea as an attempted reform, it’s invariably led to other unintended consequences that undermined the original intent. It’s been endlessly promised that Clean Elections would get rid of big political spending in Maine, but it hasn’t. That’s because it doesn’t do anything to limit overall spending; it changes only who pays for it. Instead, the amount of money spent every cycle has continued to increase, just as campaigns have grown longer and longer.

Our friends across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom have found a way to address both of these problems. They’re holding an entire general election to decide which party will control the government – and the whole thing will take only about five weeks. When you compare that to the U.S. presidential election, when candidates were announcing for the 2020 race three years before the election, it seems like a minor miracle.

Some of that shorter timetable is because of structural differences between a parliamentary democracy and a presidential one and between the two countries. England is, after all, a much smaller country, and there are more members of Parliament than there are members of the U.S. House and Senate, so these are much smaller elections. Moreover, in a parliamentary system, one never knows precisely when the next election will be – even with the recent electoral reforms passed in the United Kingdom.

One major difference between British and American elections that we could adopt, however. comes to regulating spending. The U.K. doesn’t worry quite as much about individual donations as it does about overall spending, so it has found a very simple, elegant solution: It has strict limits on how much candidates and parties can spend in a campaign. Political parties can spend only about $38,600 in each district, or about $25 million nationwide if a party fields a candidate in every district. The U.K. has discovered that, if one limits how much campaigns and parties can spend in any one race, it becomes much harder for large donors to peddle influence. That’s a much smarter approach than the one we’re currently taking to campaign finance reform, and one that we should consider adopting here as well.

Now, one could argue that, since the United States is such an enormous country, adopting campaign spending limits like the U.K. has doesn’t make much sense. California and Texas combined are almost the same population as the entire United Kingdom. It’s not just the total amount spent on campaigns that’s disparate, though – it’s the per capita spending. In the 2018 elections in Maine, candidates and parties combined to spend more than $65 million on campaigns. The United States being a larger country isn’t a reason to not have any limits; rather, it would be a logical reason to have higher limits.

Others may argue that such a proposal would run afoul of the First Amendment – but if we can limit how much campaigns receive from donors, why can’t we limit how much they spend? Even if it’s dicey constitutionally, that just means it would need to be enacted as a constitutional amendment, not that it shouldn’t be considered. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Britain’s political spending limits have affected its citizens’ rights to express themselves. They have just as free and open a society as we do, without the endless gobs of big money being thrown around.

The real reason this idea hasn’t been championed here is that too many entrenched interests would oppose it. Televisions, radio stations and newspapers could lose lots of money, as would well-heeled political consultants and fundraisers in both parties. Just as in health care, the U.S. spends far too much money on campaigns compared to the rest of the world – except in campaign finance, we have a simple solution readily available to fix it, if only we had the political will to consider it.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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