The law of unintended consequences

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By Rob Witwer

In less than two months, mail ballots will start to arrive for the 2010 primary elections, which means it wonít be long at all before the airwaves start to fill with wall-to-wall political advertising. And more than ever, those advertisements will come from groups with vaguely appealing names (ìColoradans for Mom, Home & Apple Pieî) that leave you with absolutely no idea who is behind them.

Ironically, the rise of shadowy, independent groups was made possible by the campaign finance ìreformî initiative passed by Colorado voters in 2002. ou may recall that Amendment 27 promised to get ìbig money out of politics.î It has done the opposite.

By limiting the amounts of money candidates and political parties can raise and spend, campaign finance reform led donors to direct their dollars toward a network of nonprofit entities called 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s and 527s. Of the three, the first two are not required to tell the public who their donors are. And so there is just as much money as before, if not more ó but far, far less transparency.

The consequences have been detrimental to the democratic process. Instead of local races being a two-way dialogue between candidate and voter, they are increasingly a one-way monologue between outside group and voter. 

The tenor of political messages has become more negative, too. Where candidates would fear to tread in the realm of scorched-earth campaigning because of voter backlash, these groups have nothing to lose. Theyíre not on the ballot and wonít pay a price for overreaching.

Campaign finance reform has become an object lesson for the law of unintended consequences. The economist Thomas Sowell said it best: ìOver the years, I’ve reached the point where I can hardly bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.î

Itís a good lesson to remember.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”