Looking Out for Number One

Campaign finance reform means more power for the politicians.


"One of the things I have been pointing out about McCain-Feingold is all the things it will not do," Bradley Smith of the Federal Election Commission told me last year, when the ghost of Clinton was still haunting the Beltway. "It won't prevent pardons of Marc Rich. It won't prevent people from giving donations to the presidential library. It won't prevent them from hiring a well-connected lawyer like Jack Quinn….It really doesn't do much, and people are going to find other ways to be involved in politics."

Today, Smith would be talking about the Shays-Meehan bill, which passed the House early this morning by a vote of 240-189, and is named after another Democrat-Republican duo, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.). Smith would also have to update his list of unaffected outrages to include Enron.

He might add that the effort to ban evil, unregulated "soft money"—donations to political parties and interest groups that don't have to be approved by bureaucrats—won't even do that. "The money is going to squirt out somewhere," Bruce E. Cain, director of Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies, told The Washington Post. "All the reform is doing is rechanneling where the flow is."

This raises an obvious question: If the reform accomplishes so little, why are so many working so hard to push it through? For the same reason anything gets done in politics: It serves the narrow interests of those doing the pushing. Incumbent politicians will use the bill to limit competition, while good government ("goo-goo") activist groups rely on such efforts for fundraising.

Let's crack open the bill, now on its way to the Senate after a few changes, and examine it. The first thing to note is that its main ambition is not to prohibit all soft money, but only that which can be used against incumbent politicians. Soft money to political parties, which disproportionately benefits challengers, is outlawed, as is anonymous soft money that funds advertisements within 60 days of elections, the period during which ads pose the largest threat to incumbents. But there are no restrictions on raising money for incumbents to use lobbying state legislators on redistricting issues. The principle is clear: Soft money that hurts incumbents is corrupting, but that which helps them is ennobling.

Once the effort is properly conceived as The Incumbent Protection and Full Funding for Goo-Goo Groups Act, other provisions make sense as well. There is nothing corrupting about people spending their own money to deliver a message and achieve elected office. (Who exactly would be corrupting them?) But self-financing hurts incumbents who are merely well-off, even as it helps the filthy rich dot-com bubble, trial lawyer, and Wall Street aspirants challenging them. An early effort in both the Senate and the House, then, was to give politicians an exemption to fundraising controls when faced with well-heeled opponents.

The content of campaign ads has precious little to do with funding. But it has everything to do with their effectiveness, as so-called "negative ads" are more informative and entertaining. For these same reasons they are despised by our noble solons, who seek to dictate the content of such ads with this bill.

But ads do cost money, and the pols are tired of raising it, which entails actually dealing with constituents. Therefore, in the name of good government, they also want to compel television and radio stations to sell them time at cut rates. A selfless act, this. (This provision was cut from the final bill that passed the House, but it remains in the Senate-approved version of campaign finance reform.)

The goo-goo groups, such as the Center for Responsive Politics, are of course funded by unregulated soft-money contributions from foundations and individuals. But the hypocrisy runs even deeper. The effort to ban political parties from using soft money to fund organizing, get-out-the-vote, and media campaigns is itself funded by soft money. Reports Roll Call, "Campaign for America, the pro-reform group founded by former Wall Street financier Jerome Kohlberg, which is financing the television ads, is also bankrolling phone-bank operations in 30 districts across the nation, including the nine targeted by the television ads."

Bradley Smith points out in The Wall Street Journal that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) headlined a dinner for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. Such exemplary corporate citizens as Enron and Phillip Morris kicked in $800,000 in unregulated soft money for the Center's effort to prevent political parties from hosting similar events.

This may not be corruption, but as McCain likes to point out, it has the appearance of such.