Don't Show Me the Money

by Brian Nick | 7/11/01 5:00am

Both houses of Congress are back in session

this week. And campaign finance reform, a now-familiar issue to most Americans, is being debated in the House of Representatives. The bill on the table is the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act, better known by its Senate alias, McCain-Feingold. It passed easily through the House in both the 105th and 106th Congresses, but was blocked from passage in the Senate both times. Now, in the 107th Congress, the Senate has passed the bill 59-41, shifting attention to the House's next move. The bill has traditionally been supported almost unanimously by Democrats and has received enough additional support from Republicans to pass. Now that its chance of enactment is real, however, the bill is receiving closer scrutiny from both sides, which may yet ruin its chances.

The centerpiece of the bill has always been, and continues to be, a ban on so-called "soft money," the unregulated and unlimited contributions that individuals and corporations can give to political parties for "party-building activities." In reality, this money is often filtered down to candidates. It is partly responsible for the tremendous growth in the average cost of congressional and presidential elections in recent years. Opponents of the bill (mostly Republicans) argue that banning this type of donation would be an unfair infringement on freedom of speech. However, the traditional backers of the bill, namely Democrats, have begun to realize that banning soft money would hurt them far more than the Republicans. In 2000, both parties took in a comparable amount of soft money, but Republicans gathered nearly twice as much hard money (the regulated and limited contributions to parties and candidates). Without the soft money, the Democrats would have been out-raised 2 to 1. Inexplicably, the Democrats have only just figured out that this legislation will harm their party. Many of the congressmen who have voted for the bill in the past are threatening to flip-flop this time around -- now that it really matters.

Perhaps just as shameless are the Republicans, who have taken a stand against this legislation from day one because of their addiction to soft money. Of course, most will say they are against it because of the free speech problem. Admittedly, several amendments dealing with advertising restrictions that were added to the bill during the Senate debate will likely be struck down by the courts. In that event, the legislation contains a clause that would allow the balance of the bill to survive should certain parts of it be found unconstitutional. Moreover, it is the nadir of nobility for politicians to oppose this bill, which might clean up our electoral process and restore public faith in our government by allowing them to raise only $2 million instead of $4 million.

The Republicans have some unlikely allies in their opposition to the bill. The Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses have expressed some concern over the soft money ban and how it might affect efforts by parties to "bring out the vote" in areas populated by minorities. Though much of the soft money collected by parties ends up being used on television attacks disguised as "issue ads," some of it is actually used for its intended purpose, namely to fund voter registration drives and other party activities. Without these funds, some congressmen argue, parties will be unable to rally constituents, especially in poorer neighborhoods, to come out and vote on Election Day. Because of this, some black and Hispanic members of the House are peeling off of the reform coalition and have vowed to vote against the bill, despite having voted it for it twice in the past three years.

This is why Americans don't trust politicians. The Republicans are so beholden to large donations from corporations that they are unwilling to let any money be taken out of the system. On the other side, some of the Democrats are shameless enough to openly admit that they vote differently on a bill depending on whether or not it is likely to be enacted. The House passed this legislation 252-177 the last time it came up, but it is clear that the count will be closer this time around. In the Senate, of the 54 Republicans who voted for the bill in 1999, only 43 remain in their seats, while the level of Democratic support will certainly decline as well. The other factor in play here is the effectiveness of the bullying tactics of Republican party leaders to persuade the more junior members of the House to vote against the bill. First- and second-term congressmen can have committee assignments revoked, or funding for their home districts cut, if they displease the party elders.

The coalition against campaign finance reform represents everything that is wrong with politics today. Hypocritical party leaders on both sides try to coerce their members into voting not with principle but with the party. Others are so bereft of any principle that they can spin 180 degrees on an issue in just a few months. My last thought concerns the Democrats, who fear that the absence of soft money could hurt the voter education efforts in their districts. Perhaps, if they had used more of the $200 million-plus in soft money they raised last year to educate their voters instead running attack ads against George W. Bush, more Democrats in Florida would have known how to fill out their ballots correctly.