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Limiting Big Money's Voice in Campaigns

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002 is now law, due to the persistent efforts of its sponsors, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin D. Meehan (D-Mass.). They and others who voted for the bill deserve our thanks. Our democracy will be the stronger for this reform bill.

The bill represents a 10-year struggle. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush vetoed a similar reform bill. After surviving compromises and filibusters, the 2002 version was signed into law by son George W. Bush on March 27.

What will change and does it matter?

The Bill’s Main Provisions

For the 2000 campaigns, the Federal Election Commission reports that Republicans and Democrats raised a total of $1.2 billion, double what they raised in the ’98 election and 37 percent more than ’96, the previous presidential race. That means the 2000 elections were the most expensive in U.S. history.

The new law takes effect November 6, 2002, so this fall’s election will be conducted under the old rules. It will be big money’s last hurrah, with the congressional power balance at stake.

Thereafter, the new bill will do the following:

• ban “soft-money” (unreported) contributions to the national political parties. They have come mainly from labor unions and corporations like AT&T and Philip Morris.

• increase the “hard-money” limits for individual contributions to candidates per election from $1,000 to $2,000, but keep the current limit of $5,000 for contributions to political action committees (PACs). There will be slight increases on the limits for contributions to the national parties and doubled allowances for state or local party committees per year.

• restrict the ability of corporations (including nonprofits) and unions to run “electioneering” ads featuring names and/or likenesses of candidates within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.

On the Positive Side

The fact is that elections in this country cost huge sums of money, primarily because of TV advertising. That means we generally wind up with legislators who are independently wealthy or well-financed by others. Some cynics say we have the best government money can buy. Those who accept contributions naturally feel beholden to the givers and can slant legislation to benefit them.

The recent Enron collapse is a case in point. Common Cause alleges that  Enron and its affiliates, who gave more than $2 million in soft-money contributions during the 2000 election,  received special treatment on Capitol Hill. Politicians deny that, but definitely the energy conglomerate had input in 2001 into Vice President Dick Cheney’s national energy policy.

A former Reagan administration official (Charles Bowsher) admits that what Enron’s contributions bought was no federal oversight. And that hurt thousands of employees and stockholders.

Will this bill “return power to the people”? Not necessarily. Corporations and unions will and should have a say in politics. But this law diminishes their influence. It changes the way political money is raised and spent.

Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, writing in the March 25 Christian Science Monitor, says, “National party committees and elected officials will no longer be able to receive or shake down mega-contributions from corporations, unions and funds from corporate or union treasuries, only from their voluntary political action committees, reasonable limits on the size of contributions to candidates and parties, and no sleight-of-hand transfers among national and state parties to undermine legal limits and muddle disclosure. This will reinsert some much-needed space between big-interested money and public-policy decisions.”

Perhaps there will be a shift from attack-oriented TV advertising to more grass-roots campaign activity.

There could be a real increase in competition in congressional races.

Threat to the First Amendment?

Odd coalitions emerged on this bill. Right to Life aligned with the National Rifle Association. And the League of Women Voters ended up opposed to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Granted that the law is intended to limit how far money can talk, does it also curtail the robust free speech needed in a democracy? The ACLU is convinced that the campaign finance reform bill stifles issue advocacy.

Would the NAACP’s ads—financed by a sole anonymous donor in 2000—highlighting Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s failure to endorse laws against hate crimes be allowed next year? Would New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s record on police brutality be broadcast as it was in his 2000 Senate race?

These are serious questions. A federal lawsuit has already been filed, which is undoubtedly headed for the Supreme Court.

The next logical step in the reform is to require TV to provide some free airtime—since the public (in theory at least) owns the airwaves.

Even if this bill doesn’t go far enough and the Supreme Court strikes down some of its provisions, reform was long overdue. Our confidence in our political system and our very freedom in voting are at stake. Money talks, but it shouldn’t be allowed to talk so loudly that it drowns out other voices.—B.B.

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