Calling It Campaign Finance Reform Doesn't Make It So

Commentary by Pete du Pont
Mitch McConnell is going to be demonized for blocking campaign finance reform. But whatever the Kentucky senator's motives, he is doing a public service if he keeps the Shays-Meehan bill from becoming law.

This bill, introduced by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), was passed in the House of Representatives in September - a patently unconstitutional attempt to add all kinds of new restrictions on what can and can't be spent - and spoken - in an election campaign.

A Chicago Tribune editorial summed the Shays-Meehan bill up nicely as trying to fix "the complicated, convoluted campaign finance system by heaping on more complicated, convoluted rules and restrictions. It attempts to do the impossible - squeeze the money out of politics - by way of the intolerable - an assault on free speech."

Mentioning our current "complicated, convoluted campaign finance system" identifies the basic problem in campaign finance reform. Those who want still more legislation maintain that it's necessary to keep special interests from dominating elections. What the campaign finance laws - both those existing and those proposed - really do, however, is guarantee that incumbents, the famous and wealthy, and those with the backing of the establishment press, have a big advantage.

The incumbents have established fund-raising machinery and the reformers haven't yet figured out a way to keep a wealthy person from spending his own money.

Oh, there's one other category of potential candidate who can operate comfortably under the restrictions - the ones with notoriety. Ironic, isn't it, that if Warren Beatty or Cybill Shepherd or Donald Trump actually should decide to run for office, they likely would find it easier to raise campaign funds than Sen. John McCain, who is making campaign finance reform a big part of his presidential candidacy?

So how did we get to this point? The current law was passed in 1974 as a reaction to the Watergate scandals. Prior to that, Eugene McCarthy was able to mount an independent primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, thanks to six-figure contributions from some rich people, particularly Jack Dreyfus, Jr., and Stewart Mott. Dreyfus and Mott couldn't have given McCarthy that kind of money today.

It is pretty obvious from all the tumult that the 1974 law hasn't worked the way it was intended to. But what we see proposed as a cure is worse than the disease. Perhaps the most favorable thing that can be said about the Shays-Meehan bill is that it is unlikely ever to pass constitutional muster.

If you think that's an exaggeration, consider that if the Shays-Meehan bill became law, your local newspaper could run pages - a whole special section if it wished - telling about how wonderful one candidate is, but it would be against the law for you to buy a full-page ad in that same paper to express your disagreement.

Let's say, instead, that you decide to put your own web site on the Internet promoting your candidate. That's a problem, too. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) tried to amend the Shays-Meehan bill to specifically exempt ideas and opinions expressed on Internet sites from regulation by the Federal Election Commission - and the proposed amendment was defeated.

There's no refuge in sticking with the existing campaign finance law, either. The Center for Democracy and Technology reports that the FEC has already ruled that a web company can't offer free sites to all candidates on a non-partisan basis; they would constitute illegal corporate contributions. The FEC also ruled that a citizen can't create his or her own independent web site criticizing one candidate and urging election of another without being regulated by the FEC. If the site costs more than $1,000, that's an illegal campaign contribution. And so on.

After the 1974 law was passed, one author described it as complicated enough to keep a small army of Washington lawyers perpetually employed. There are those who have made a living out of figuring out ways to get around the current law. You can bet they see the Shays-Meehan bill as offering the potential for a brand new revenue stream.

I don't mind sounding like a broken record when I repeat what I have said for years: The only way to ensure fairer, freer elections is to abolish campaign spending limitations except for requiring full and immediate disclosure on the Internet of all contributors by all candidates.

California Congressman John Doolittle introduced a bill proposing exactly that in 1997, and had 69 cosponsors. It was referred to committee and never heard from again. Too bad. That would be real campaign finance reform.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.