The Death of Campaign Finance Reform?

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says his proposed campaign finance restrictionsare a sure winner in the Senate. His only concern is that Democrats mightabandon ship. McCain has reason to worry: Democrats might well end upkilling his pet cause.

This prediction seems absurd. After all, congressional Democrats have beenfirmly united behind campaign finance restrictions for reasons of ideologyand self-interest. Why would they turn against "reform" just as it seemslikely to pass?

Because the McCain-Feingold legislation will change the political universein two ways, neither of which helps Democrats.

First, it will ban the unregulated "soft" money that goes to the politicalparties. Despite liberal howling about soft money, the fact is Democrats nowpull in almost as much of it as Republicans. In 2000, the Democrats raised$199 million (49 percent of all soft money) while the Republicans garnered$211 million (51 percent of the total). Democrats will be loath to give upthis potent political weapon at the moment they've achieved parity with theGOP.

Second, it will prevent labor unions from paying for radio and TV adsfavoring Democratic candidates or issues. Democrats will think twice beforedisarming their friends.

Past votes by congressional Democrats don't tell us much about what theymight do this year. Votes for McCain's earlier proposals were always "freevotes" for Democrats -- they could vote "yes" knowing that the bill wouldnot become law. But voting for McCain-Feingold now means it might actuallypass. Once Democrats focus on the real consequences of the legislation, they'll experience a foxhole conversion.

To illustrate why, consider the case of Chuck Robb, the former DemocraticSenator from Virginia. During his two terms in the Senate, Robb supportedmost gun-control measures. The National Rifle Association targeted him fordefeat in 2000 in his race against George Allen. Acting independently ofAllen's campaign, the NRA spent $572,000 against Robb as part of its "VoteFreedom First" campaign. Robb lost with 48 percent of the vote.

Isn't this an argument for why Democrats will support campaign financereform? No, because spending by groups like the NRA would not be restrictedby the McCain proposal. If the courts uphold the ban on soft money, theDemocrats will face the worst of all possible words -- no more soft moneycoming into their coffers even as independent groups like the NRA are freeto raise and spend as much as they like.

What's more, banning soft money won't eliminate it from the politicalsystem. It will simply be redirected from the political parties toindependent groups like the NRA, swelling their budgets. Surely some SenateDemocrats are now wondering, "How will I fend off attacks without the helpof soft money? How do I avoid becoming Chuck Robb?"

So a number of Senate Democrats will conclude that McCain-Feingold offersfew advantages and potentially large headaches. They'll want to vote againstthe bill. The only problem will be how to backpedal on campaign financereform after years of ardent support. Enter the White Knight: George W.Bush.

Bush will insist that McCain-Feingold include a strong "paycheck protection"provision to prevent unions bosses from forcing their members to supportpolitical positions they may not agree with. Since the unions hate "paycheckprotection," Senate Democrats can help their allies by voting againstcampaign finance reform. Publicly, they'll lament that they were forced totake this course of action. But in private, they'll be relieved. The "poisonpill" of paycheck protection will taste sweet.

Of course, the real winners will be the American political system and theConstitution. Motivated by self preservation, Senate Democrats will end uppreserving the First Amendment right of the American people to spend moneypropagating their political beliefs. Maybe bipartisanship isn't so bad afterall.

John Samples

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.