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On campaign reform -- ban soft money, not speech

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

The Enron scandal, which exploded like a stink bomb in Washington, has revived the debate over campaign finance reform, a political disinfectant Congress has resisted for years. The Houston energy company spread its soft money among Republicans and Democrats, just as other corporations do, and now that the company has been brought down by fraud, corruption and greed, members of Congress are scrambling to distance themselves from this dirty giant. They are returning their Enron campaign donations and may even be ready to turn off the soft-money spigot.

House Republican leaders will do their best to sidetrack or kill the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill in a showdown vote next week. But the Enron after-shocks have them running scared. Forced to schedule a vote after 218 lawmakers signed a discharge petition, Speaker Dennis Hastert has vowed to oppose the measure aggressively, warning his colleagues last week its passage could cost Republicans control of the House and give Democrats a permanent political advantage. He likened the fight to "Armageddon."

The House bill, like the McCain-Feingold legislation that cleared the Senate last year, would ban unlimited "soft money" donations that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals give to the political parties. Soft-money advocates say with a straight face that this unregulated money is used for party-building activities. They know better. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that the single largest use of soft money -- 37.8 percent -- is for political advertising. The report said: "Almost 92 percent of party ads never even identified the name of a political party, let along encouraged voters to register with the party, to volunteer with the local party organization, or to support the party."

Even corporate donors recognize the soft-money game for what it is -- political extortion. A recent national survey of more than 300 prominent business leaders commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development, a business research organization, found strong support for a ban on soft money. Nearly three-quarters of the business executives surveyed said they felt pressured to give large donations, and more than half said they feared legislative retribution if they didn't play the soft-money game.

Two years ago, Edward A. Kangas, an international business executive, wrote in the New York Times: "Congress passed laws that would put corporate executives in jail for offering money to a foreign official in the course of commerce. Now some of its members express bewilderment when people say that there is something unseemly about making large payments to the campaign committees of American elected officials."

Of course, if soft money is banned, candidates will become more dependent on limited individual contributions (Shays-Meehan would raise the limit on individual contributions from $1,000 to $2,000). That probably means corporations and other special interests can buy the same "access" to Washington lawmakers and policymakers for a lot less cash -- say $2,000 instead of $200,000. Ultimately, the integrity of our political system depends on the integrity of individual elected officials -- not on the size of campaign contributions. No legislated reform can change that.

Unfortunately, both the House and Senate bills have a fatal flaw: They would restrict the right of issue advocacy groups to participate fully in the political debate. The legislation before Congress would ban "issue advertising" that mentioned a candidate by name in the 60 days before an election, the very time when most voters start paying close attention to the candidates and the issues. In the name of reform, groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club would be prohibited from running ads that mention the voting record or the position of candidates on such issues as gun control or environmental policy. For example, if Sen. Foghorn voted against every environmental protection bill to come along, the Sierra Club would not be allowed to mention his voting record in its ads. But nothing in the proposed campaign finance law would prevent the senator from running ads portraying himself as a protector of the environment.

How does this promote political accountability?

Amazingly, most of the nation's major newspapers are editorially supporting this restriction on political speech, knowing that their own speech is protected by the First Amendment. They can support, oppose and criticize candidates by name on their editorial pages. Yet, these editorialists cheer legislation that would deny that same right to independent groups that organize around issues.

The reformers contend that if soft money is outlawed, powerful interests will simply channel their money into unregulated issue advertising. That's probably true. However, the way to deal with that is to require disclosure of the donors to issue advertising campaigns and trust the voters to see through groups fronting for special interests. Like it or not, corporations, unions and individuals have a right to spend their money to promote issues and candidates they support. Sure, their ads may distort a candidate's record and spin the truth beyond recognition. But so do the ads the candidates and their spin consultants throw at us.

My bottom line is this: The government has no business regulating political speech in a federal election. It's un-American and, in my opinion, unconstitutional.

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