The Senate's campaign finance opera

Posted: Mar 29, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--The overture for the Senate's campaign finance opera--(BEG ITAL)opera bouffe, actually--was operatic indignation about President Bush's decision against cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Reformers said the decision was a payoff for the coal industry's campaign contributions. But natural gas interests, rivals of the coal interests, suffered from Bush's decision--yet they gave Republicans more money ($4.8 million) last year than coal interests gave ($3.37 million). The ``reforming'' senators began their reforming by legislating for themselves an even stronger entitlement to buy television time at a discount, and by voting themselves a right to take larger contributions (up to $6,000, rather than just $1,000) when running against a rich, self-financing opponent. The Supreme Court says the only permissible reason for limiting political speech by limiting money is to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof. The Senate did not explain why it is corrupting to take $6,000 when running against an opponent with a net worth of X but not corrupting when running against an opponent with net worth of 10 times X. The Senate refused to ban, as nine states do, lobbyists from contributing to legislators when the legislature is in session. John McCain, at last noticing the Constitution, said (BEG ITAL)this inhibition on political giving is constitutionally problematic, presumably because it restricts the rights to political expression and to petition for redress of grievances. Constitutional scrupulousness is a sometime thing for McCain, who once voted to amend the First Amendment to empower government to do what his bill now aims to do--ration political communications. For example, his bill would restrict broadcast ads by unions and corporations and groups they support in the two months before a general election or 30 days before a primary if the ads (BEG ITAL)mention a candidate. In a (BEG ITAL)cri de coeur revealing the main motive for many ``reform'' politicians--a motive having (BEG ITAL)nothing to do with corruption of the appearance of it--Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said: ``I'm suffering an independent expenditure missile attack, and I don't have my shield.'' Campaign finance reform is primarily an attempt by politicians to shield themselves from free speech--from, that is, the consequences of the shield James Madison wrote to protect the people from politicians: ``Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.'' Last Saturday McCain's partner, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, delivered the Democrats' response to President Bush's weekly radio address. With the reformer's characteristic hyperbole, Feingold attempted to reconnect reform with ``corruption.'' He said: ``Members of Congress and the leaders of both political parties routinely request and receive contributions for the parties of $100,000, $500,000, $1 million.'' Well. There are 535 members of Congress. In the last two-year (1999-2000) election cycle, there were 1,564 contributions of $60,000 or more from individuals and organizations. So all those legislators supposedly ``routinely'' receiving such contributions for their parties receive, on average, fewer than two a year. The total value of all 1,564 was $365.2 million, a sum equal to one-fourteenth the amount Procter & Gamble spent on advertising during the same period. The New York Times accurately and approvingly expresses McCainism: ``Congress is unable to deal objectively with any issue, from a patients' bill of rights to taxes to energy policy, if its members are receiving vast open-ended donations from the industries and people affected.'' Oh. If only people affected by government would stop trying to affect the government--if they would just shut up and let McCain act ``objectively.'' If you doubt that reformers advocate reform because they believe that acting ``objectively'' means coming to conclusions shared by The New York Times, read ``Who's Buying Campaign Finance Reform?'' written by attorney Cleta Mitchell and published by the American Conservative Union Foundation. It reveals that since 1996, liberal foundations and soft money donors have contributed (BEG ITAL)$73 million to the campaign for campaign finance reform. For example, George Soros, founder of drug legalization efforts and other liberal causes, has contributed $4.7 million, including more than $600,000 to Arizonans for Clean Elections--more than 71 percent of the funding of ACE. Soros and seven other wealthy people founded and funded the Campaign for a Progressive Future. One of those people, Steven Kirsch, contributed $500,000 to campaign ``reform'' groups in 2000--and $1.8 million against George W. Bush. Another reformer, Jerome Kohlberg, donated $100,000 to a group that ran ads saying ``Let's get the $100,000 checks out of politics.'' Let's be clear. These people have and should retain a constitutional right to behave in this way, putting the (BEG ITAL)bouffe in the (BEG ITAL)opera bouffe.