Much Ado, but Nothing Doing

Even reformers know that campaign finance fixes won't work for very long. So why won't they stop trying?


"I feel like we are stepping into a scene from Shakespeare's Henry V, with our great captains marching us around the battlefield."

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) knows that campaign finance reform means chaos and war. Things are so treacherous, in fact, that the AFL-CIO and members of the Congressional Black Caucus appear ready to side with House Republicans. For their part, House Republicans rubber-stamped reform legislation twice in the past three years. Now they have to jump ship because a reform bill has passed the Senate and might actually become law if the House follows suit.

That said, Kirk's allusion is a bit off the mark. A more accurate touchstone would have been Much Ado about Nothing, since even the bill's strongest supporters don't think campaign finance reform will permanently remove what they see as the scourge of corruption from elections.

Kirk made his remarks in front of the Capitol this Tuesday, with plenty of the "great captains" of Congress on hand. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) were there to trumpet their campaign finance triumph in the Senate, and to lend support to nearly identical legislation introduced in the House by Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). If the bill survives a cliffhanger House vote this week, it will "kill" hundreds of millions of dollars in unregulated "soft money" contributions that go to national parties rather than to specific candidates. The national parties use soft money to pay for campaign goodies that individual candidates can't afford because of limits on how much "hard money" they can legally squeeze out of contributors. The main provision of the Shays-Meehan bill would ban all soft money contributions to national parities. (The Brookings Institution has an excellent rundown on the particulars of the bill here.)

At first blush, the pending legislation does sound like radical reform. Certainly that's how its champions talk about it. "At the end of this week, we are going to dramatically change the campaign finance system in the most dramatic way in a generation," Meehan gushed to a crush of reporters at Tuesday's press conference. McCain prophesied that "this will change the face of American politics." Leaders from Common Cause (the nonprofit that hosted the event) and other pro-reform groups like the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids all predicted that the bill would shove "special interest" money out of the process, paving the way for the progressive laws America really wants and needs.

Maybe. But ask them how long it will take money to find its way back into politics and they seem a bit less enthusiastic, however.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Paul Cronin, a press secretary at Common Cause, said the ultimate solution would contain free television ads for candidates and publicly financed campaigns. "I think we're seeing the current measure as a modest step in the right direction," Cronin said. Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, wrote in a July 8 Washington Post op-ed that although he supports the legislation, he knows "it won't put the special interests out of business." Even McCain admitted that the money would make its way back: "Ten, 15 or 20 years from now, there will be another group of senators and congressmen here because we'll have to clean it up again."

Supporters also face resistance from normally friendly faces. Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Task Force on Campaign Finance Reform, has weighed in against the ban on soft money. He said it would cripple "get out the vote" efforts that both parties aim at minority communities come election time. Republican House leaders have tacked Wynn's name onto alternative legislation proposed by Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). It would "limit" rather than ban soft money. Soft-money maestros at the AFL-CIO are leaning toward the Republican alternative, according to Bill Samuel, the union's legislative director. "We continue to object to restrictions on party building and get-out-the-vote activities," Samuel told me. "Ney seems to have heard us and he appears to have tried to make some changes."

The confusion is predictable. Any attempt to fix campaign finance will need to undo previous campaign finance reforms. On Tuesday, Shays said his legislation would simply "enforce" a ban on corporate treasury money enacted in 1907, a ban on union money enacted in the 1940s, and a ban on foreign money enacted in the 1970s. None of those laws have kept money out of politics, but Shays knows his will.

Other reformers unconvincingly argue that money didn't play such a powerful role in the good old days. McCain said it was a cleaner business when he first threw his hat in the ring in 1982: "We didn't sell out the Lincoln bedroom….It wasn't until the late 1980s and into the 1990s that the system became corrupt." According to Feingold, "What this is about is getting us back to where we need to be." Is that back to 1907, when the century's first campaign-finance reforms sprang to life, or the 1940s, when Congress tried again? Or maybe the 1970s, when would-be reformers created the soft-money system as a response to perceived excesses by Richard Nixon and others? No one seems to know for sure.

The simple answer to reduce the amount of money pumped into federal elections is to limit the federal government's power to distribute juicy favors to donors with deep pockets. Needless to say, that is not on the agenda this week. Or next week. Or the week after that.

So whatever the outcome on campaign finance reform this time around, get ready for the next great election fix. Like prosperity during the Great Depression, it's just around the corner. Just ask any reformer.