Politicians' Baloney

By Jim Babka

A man from the upper Midwest wrote his Representative to Congress opposing the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill (Passed into law in March of 2002 as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002). In response, he received an email response full of declarative statements. The facts were so twisted from what he had learned about the bill from sources he trusted, he wasn't sure how to respond.

Politicians are professional deceivers. All too often, the first people they deceive are themselves. It's likely they've come to believe what they're saying, but that doesn't make the stuff they say any more truthful.

Frequently, politicians are able to cloak their deception behind public ignorance. People assume that the Representatives must know what they're talking about -- a bad assumption. And ignorance is a correctable problem -- it requires education.

You could spend all of your free time reading-up on what Congress is about to do to you, but who has the time? And who wants to waste it that way?

Here are some 'rules of thumb' you can use in any situation to detect a politician's baloney.

1) If someone labels their product, they're engaged in "marketing." There's nothing wrong with this concept in principle. Language is far from precise. One word can have multiple meanings. The salesman and the marketer both want you to view their product in a favorable light. We do the same thing when we convince ourselves that we need a particular car, tool, golf-club, piece of art, etc. We even do that with the person we'd like to marry.

But politicians use marketing too and their reasons are often nefarious. We charitably call it spin but it should really be called Orwellian speech (based on George Orwell's book "1984"). And we call it nefarious because an Orwellian spinner makes words mean the opposite of what they really mean.

Consider titles. Titles are important -- ask any book publisher. The wrong title can, all by itself, kill book sales. Politicians know this and use it to their advantage. For example, in 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act. One doubts that Hancock, Washington, Franklin, and Adams would've found this bill the least bit patriotic because it was a vast expansion of government's ability to spy on its own citizens, sans the due process requirements of the 4th and 5th Amendments. Sam Adams probably would've started a tea party or grabbed his musket over that bill.

Here are some examples from the recently passed Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (Shays-Meehan & McCain-Feingold).

  • "Bipartisan" is an Orwellian word. It conjures up consensus, harmony and agreement.

  • Opposing a bipartisan bill is called "gridlock" or "partisan," which conjures up ugly images of fighting, anger, and disagreement.

  • Never, trust a politician who uses the word "voluntary." At the capitol, voluntary usually means the opposite. For example, did you know the Income Tax is voluntary? I'm serious, and until a few years ago, it used to say as much in that 1040 book the IRS would mail to your house each Winter. Just because you'll go to jail for not paying your taxes doesn't mean they're not voluntary!

  • "Reform" is a killer word in the Orwellian lexicon. For most people, reform means to 'make better.'
  • Opposing reform is called "supporting corruption" because that's what the bill was fighting to eradicate. Therefore, the logic goes, if you're opposed to it, you must like corruption.

Armed with that logic, perhaps some Congressman should introduce a bill eliminating sin, if all we need is a law to stop such things. He or she could call it, the Bipartisan Righteousness and Human Perfection Act of 2002. After all, who could oppose a harmonious call for good behavior and flawlessness?

2) Politicians spend a great deal of time fixing problems their predecessors created. The key thing to look for is invented terms -- things no one would ever say. Rule of thumb: invented terminology is designed to cover-up problems created by… politicians!

Take hard money and soft money for example, have you ever heard any normal human being use words like that (note: lawyers don't count as normal)? Of course not. Then where did these words come from?

In 1974, Congress passed a campaign reform bill that limited individual contributions to $1000. That was the start of so-called hard money. Hard money is regulated money. The regulation limits the size of contributions from individuals and compels reporting them to a government agency.

The opposite of hard is soft. Thus, soft money was unregulated money. It was money that was given to political parties. Contributions to parties were not limited and there was no requirement to report them, provided those funds weren't used to advocate the election or defeat of any particular candidate. Since political parties exist to get people elected to office, so one has to wonder what the dollars were spent on. Soft money was spent on "party building activities," but I'm starting to digress.

Does that mucky paragraph leave you confused? Well, you're not alone. The point is that politicians created these problems and now other politicians are pretending they can solve them by writing more laws. Now ask yourself the question, if writing regulations in the past didn't solve the problem, what good is passing greater restrictions on freedom going to do?

3) Watch out when a politician pretends to be altruistic or egalitarian. One politician might say, "We've created a fair and level playing field." Fair, to whom? Level, compared to what? Rule of thumb: politicians have motives just like everyone else.

John McCain wanted a ban on what he calls Scam Ads. These ads he hates so much are more commonly referred to as Independent Ads or Issue Advocacy Ads, where donors names are hidden from view (note: How can the incumbent politician know for sure who deserves retribution if names aren't disclosed?). The now infamous Wiley brothers ran an ad that accused McCain of being unfriendly to the environment just days before the New York GOP primary. His campaign was doomed already but, just in case, this ad permanently ended his hopes of being the 2000 GOP nominee for President.

Incumbents are quite good at raising hard-money, usually many times better at it than their challengers. Good challengers, with a chance to win, count on last minute support from interest groups and their political party to help them over the top. This bill increased hard-money limits, but severely restricts interest groups and political parties. If we chose a truthful label, we'd call this bill the Bipartisan Incumbent Protection Act.

4) Another thing to watch for is demonization and name-calling by political figures. Generally, this points to a weak spot in their case. Rule of thumb: when all else fails, start calling your opponent names.

This is the easiest and least intellectual course to follow in a debate. How many times have you made a convincing point in an argument or debate with someone, only to have your source, or worse yet, you personally, called a name. It's a sign that your opponent has no brain juice left -- they can't logically or factually counter your argument, so they call on the trusty standby of ad hominem attack.

We've already mentioned Scam Ads -- leaving us to ask, whose judgment are we relying on for this critique? One man's Scam Ad is another man's attempt to tell the truth about authority as he sees it.

The same play is employed when politicians claim to be fighting special interests. Who are these unnamed agents? In truth, they're anyone who opposes the bill. Technically speaking, they're usually groups with membership roles of American citizens -- folks who've banded together to increase the size of their voice. Their right to speak out in chorus is also protected by the 1st Amendment free association clause -- that is until the president signs the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan bill into law.

However, when it comes to campaign finance, just because Congress is about to pass some new regulation that will cost your industry tens of millions of dollars, doesn't mean you should be permitted to use TV or radio to tell the world about it!

5) Know your Constitution. In the case of campaign finance reform, understand the separation of powers. If a congressman says they're giving an old law new teeth, they're trying to lead you to believe they've improved enforcement of the law. If, for example, a 1907 law banning corporate contributions is on the books, and it is, you should ask why would we need a new one? Rule of thumb: when a new law is supposedly needed to improve enforcement, ask the question, "Why isn't the existing law being adequately enforced?"

The legislative branch can only makes laws, but the administrative branch (led by the president and his cabinet) enforces them. Are they asleep on the job? Probably not. It's highly likely the original bill doesn't do what it pretended to. And odds are even that it actually made matters worse (possibly, much worse).

So a better question is, "Why isn't the existing law solving the problem?"

Even better yet, "Why don't we just repeal the old laws?"

Jim Babka is the President of American Liberty Foundation and RealCampaignReform.org, Inc., both in Alexandria, VA. Before that, he was the press secretary for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate for President in 2000.