Commentary

A Big-Bucks Push for ‘Reform’

By Patrick Basham
This essay was originally published in the New York Post,March 26, 2001.
Funny: Someone is spending big bucks to push the McCain-Feingold “campaign-finance reform” bill - but hasn’t revealed just how much they’re spending.

The bill’s supporters say it’s just the thing to clean up Washington; its critics see it as an unconstitutional ban on free speech that would in fact increase the privileges of the ruling class of incumbent politicians.

And the high-powered ad campaign by “Americans for Reform” would seem to confirm the critics’ suspicions - for it violates all the principles that these reformers supposedly espouse.

On the fourth day of Senate debate about how best to reform our campaign-finance system, Americans for Reform launched a nationwide television ad campaign in support of the legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The advertisements will air first in the nation’s capital before moving into other markets around the nation next week.

Americans for Reform is the same outfit that sponsored the recent multi-town-hall tour conducted by McCain and Feingold. Capitol Hill is such a den of special-interest money-centered corruption, the senators told grassroots America, Draconian regulation like what they propose can save us from ourselves or, rather, from those we’ve chosen to represent us in Washington.

The McCain-Feingold bill has two central features. The first is a ban on “soft money” - the regulated, but unlimited, donations that individuals, unions and corporations make to parties that pay for expensive ad campaigns and costly get-out-the-vote organizational efforts. The second seeks to prohibit political advertising by independent (i.e., noncandidate or nonparty) groups within 30 days of a primary election and within 60 days of a general election.

Now, here’s the irony. Here’s a group dedicated to eliminating the influence of paid advertising by independent groups close to an election - on the disingenuous grounds that these allegedly unaccountable, outside forces may influence voters to the detriment of one or even both of the major party candidates. Yet it is buying expensive TV time in the final days before a series of key Senate votes in an explicit attempt to influence 100 senators and their constituents back home into voting for a particular piece of legislation.

It gets even better. Nowadays, campaign reformers of all stripes never fail to stress the importance of the full disclosure of the source and the size of contributions. Most recently, the Hudson Institute’s Amy Kauffman, writing in the Financial Times, echoed this call, imploring that, “We should enforce complete Internet disclosure of all contributions within 48 hours of receipt.” Guess what: Americans for Reform chose not to make available even the cost of this current advertising campaign.

A final irony is that these independent expenditures by an organization feverishly concerned about a particular issue constitute an implicit admission that healthy, competitive political debate cannot occur solely within the confines either of the Senate or House chambers or the campaigns of candidates of the two major parties.

Increasingly, Americans are receiving more (and often better) information from independent advertising campaigns than from their Republican and Democratic representatives. It is highly refreshing to observe that even a prominent campaign-finance-reform group is in agreement on this point.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.