A Big‐​Bucks Push for ‘Reform’

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'respending.

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

And the high-powered ad campaign by "Americans for Reform" would seem toconfirm the critics' suspicions - for it violates all the principles thatthese reformers supposedly espouse.

On the fourth day of Senate debate about how best to reform ourcampaign-finance system, Americans for Reform launched a nationwidetelevision ad campaign in support of the legislation sponsored by Sens. JohnMcCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The advertisements will airfirst in the nation's capital before moving into other markets around thenation next week.

Americans for Reform is the same outfit that sponsored the recentmulti-town-hall tour conducted by McCain and Feingold. Capitol Hill is sucha den of special-interest money-centered corruption, the senators toldgrassroots America, Draconian regulation like what they propose can save usfrom ourselves or, rather, from those we've chosen to represent us inWashington.

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 campaignsand costly get-out-the-vote organizational efforts. The second seeks toprohibit political advertising by independent (i.e., noncandidate ornonparty) groups within 30 days of a primary election and within 60 days ofa general election.

Now, here's the irony. Here's a group dedicated to eliminating the influenceof paid advertising by independent groups close to an election - on thedisingenuous grounds that these allegedly unaccountable, outside forces mayinfluence voters to the detriment of one or even both of the major partycandidates. Yet it is buying expensive TV time in the final days before aseries of key Senate votes in an explicit attempt to influence 100 senatorsand their constituents back home into voting for a particular piece oflegislation.

It gets even better. Nowadays, campaign reformers of all stripes never failto stress the importance of the full disclosure of the source and the sizeof contributions. Most recently, the Hudson Institute's Amy Kauffman,writing in the Financial Times, echoed this call, imploring that, "We shouldenforce complete Internet disclosure of all contributions within 48 hours ofreceipt." Guess what: Americans for Reform chose not to make available eventhe cost of this current advertising campaign.

A final irony is that these independent expenditures by an organizationfeverishly concerned about a particular issue constitute an implicitadmission that healthy, competitive political debate cannot occur solelywithin the confines either of the Senate or House chambers or the campaignsof candidates of the two major parties.

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

Patrick Basham

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