Let's Hear It for the Doolittle Plan

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Republican Congressman John Doolittle of California and 54 of his House colleagues (52 Republicans and two Democrats) have the ideal answer to reforming campaign finance, but their approach is so straightforward that hardly anyone seems to be paying attention.

They have introduced in Congress the Citizen Legislature and Political Freedom Act (H.R. 965). This act essentially would repeal the limits on political campaign contributions, require immediate disclosure by candidates when they do receive contributions (and bar acceptance of any contributions without proper disclosure), require the Federal Election Commission to post all the reports on the Internet and stop the use of public money to finance presidential election campaigns.

That's about it. Simple. Clear. Enforceable.

Instead, you are more likely to have heard about such campaign finance reform measures as the one proposed by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) or a companion bill proposed by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA). These bills, and some others, are all about "soft money" (as distinguished from "hard money," naturally), and the difference between "issue advocacy" (good use for soft money) and "express advocacy" (bad use).

Soft money is money that isn't regulated by the FEC. A lot of it went to the two major political parties during the last presidential campaign, and organizations as diverse as the AFL-CIO and the Christian Coalition raised soft money. Soft money can't be used for direct spending on a campaign, but it can be used for activities not directly related to the campaign -that distinction is often blurred. Political parties can use soft money for activities like voter registration and state and local political activities. Organizations independent of candidates and political parties can do issue advertising, but not advertising that explicitly calls for the election or defeat of a particular candidate. The latter is considered direct campaign spending, and can be regulated. The McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan bills would ban soft money contributions to political parties altogether, and try to make clear the distinction between "issue advocacy," which is protected by the First Amendment, and "express advocacy," which is not.

It sounds like a law that could keep litigators in business for years. Complex. Unclear. Practically inviting evasion.

Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters of the U.S., said after the 1996 election, "We cannot afford to have the integrity of the system continually undermined by the disastrous combination of an impotent Federal Election Commission and laws that allow undisclosed millions to be funneled into campaigns."

One would think Ms. Cain would love the Doolittle proposal - no more undisclosed millions and an FEC that keeps close tabs on all contributions. Unfortunately, that appears not to be what most of the reformers have in mind. Ms. Cain, for example, thinks soft money is fine if it's used "to strengthen the grassroots involvement through voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities," but she was appalled to note that so much of the spending in 1996 "had no other purpose than to change the outcome of elections."

To the frustration of many would-be reformers, the Supreme Court keeps insisting that speaking out on public issues, even in TV commercials, is free speech. This prompted House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt to propose a constitutional amendment, saying, "What we have is two important values in conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy. You can't have both."

Now the idea that free speech inhibits democracy may strike one as bizarre, but the Senate actually debated - and at least had the good sense to reject overwhelmingly - such an amendment earlier this year. Ms. Cain likes the constitutional amendment idea too. "It closes loopholes and tightens the definition of issue advocacy while protecting the First Amendment rights of groups and individuals to advocate for their beliefs and positions," she said. How's that again?

We need to encourage political speech, not look for ways to regulate it. The only reason for any campaign finance laws should be to ensure full disclosure of the source of political contributions in as visible a way as possible. Is it too much to hope that Senators McCain and Feingold and Representatives Shays and Meehan will realize that, too?