The New York Times has a hilarious story describing how members of Congress are only now discovering, to their dismay, the requirements of the "campaign finance reform" law they voted for last year. "We sometimes leave our audiences in a state of complete shock," says a lawyer who teaches the intricacies of McCain-Feingold to Democratic legislators. The seminars elicit "a sort of slack-jawed amazement at how far this thing reached." A lawyer who runs similar sessions for Republicans says, "There's an initial stage where the reaction is, 'This can't be true.' And then there's the actual anger stage."
A few other snapshots from the story:
The new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Representative Robert T. Matsui of California, who voted for McCain-Feingold, says he has been surprised by its fine print.
"I didn't realize what all was in it," Mr. Matsui said. "We have cautioned members: `You have to really understand this law. And if you have any ambiguity, err on the side of caution.' "
It turns out that the law also includes a provision requiring that federal candidates appear full-faced for the last four seconds of their campaigns' television advertisements and personally attest that they stand behind the advertisements' content.
Several consultants said this could prove to be quite a problem politically when the time comes to begin televising the kind of hard-hitting negative advertisements that have become standard campaign fare. As a rule, those ads at present tend to reduce the role of the candidate to a small line at the bottom of a screen.
"I think it was a total surprise to people who don't read C.Q. with a yellow pen," said Bill Knapp, a Democratic media consultant, referring to Congressional Quarterly, which keeps close tabs on legislative maneuverings here.
Members of both parties have been startled to learn the law's penalties. A violation of McCain-Feingold — be it a national party official's soft-money raising, or a senator's acting as a host at a fund-raiser on behalf of a governor — is a felony carrying a prison sentence of as much as five years.
McCain-Feingold may be an unconstitutional monstrosity, but maybe it will lead members of Congress to reconsider their habit of voting for legislation they haven't read. In any case, it's richly satisfying to see legislators worry that they might be tossed in jail for a seemingly trivial mistake such as speaking at the wrong event or letting your name appear on an invitation. This is the kind of fear and uncertainty their convoluted laws routinely impose on ordinary Americans.