Cleaning up campaigns?

Posted: Feb 20, 2002 12:00 AM
Cleaning up campaign finance is a dirty job. It's dirty because the public wants to be lied to. Voters want to believe that all Washington has to do is pass a single reform bill and the money scandals will go away. It's dirty because Capitol Hill pols have figured that out. Most of all, it's dirty because parts of the Shays-Meehan bill, passed by the House last week, seem to violate the Constitution. I hate to invoke free speech, because D.C. Republicans are so phony when they rail about the First Amendment violations in the bill. (Look how many Repubs were ready to kiss off the Constitution in 1995 on an anti-flag desecration measure.) Then, when it comes to the right of Enron to give six figures to the GOP, these Repubs cry foul. Me, I have no fear of abrogating the right of Big Money to buy influence in Washington. I do applaud efforts to try to limit the influence of big money on federal elections. But here's the rub: If you limit donations to campaigns and parties, you need to find a way to limit donations to independent campaign organizations. Otherwise, Fat Cats will create their own better-financed independent campaigns -- that aren't subject to limits -- to help or hurt a particular candidate. And they'll end up with even more power. The folks behind Shays-Meehan knew that. So their bill prohibited organizations from broadcasting political ads before general and primary elections, unless their heavily regulated political action committees bought the ads. The intent was good. The bill, however, may well be unconstitutional. Elections lawyer Allison Hayward noted that one problem with the bill is that when it talks about political speech, "they don't define what support or attack is." So, as Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee explained, if a vote on a partial-birth abortion bill were to occur close to an election, Shays-Meehan would make it very difficult for his group to run TV ads that prompt voters to contact their representative or senator. What about organizations that don't have PACs? Or don't believe in PACs? The ACLU's Washington director Laura W. Murphy responded, "I think it's an outrage that this Congress is going to force us to become a partisan organization merely for the right to say, 'Tell Congressman Jones to oppose the flag-burning amendment.' That ad will now be interpreted by the Federal Election Commission to be for or against a candidate." A spokesman for Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., isn't sympathetic. "That's what our bill does," he said. "If you want to fund ads, fine. Do it through a PAC." He cited a study that found that less than 1 percent of political ads in 1998 were "true issue advocacy" ads, instead of thinly veiled campaign ads. Johnson asked, "What is it about these ads that is so pernicious?" The answer is: It's not the ads that are pernicious, it's the money-grubbing by lawmakers to get the money to air them that stinks. But if the money-grubbing is bad, so are laws that promise more than they can deliver. D.C. elections lawyer Jan Baran said of the bill, "They're regulating in an area that is full of constitutional land mines, and they don't seem to care.'' Meanwhile, voters are so hungry for something that appears to be a reform that they don't care what it actually does.