Campaign Finance Reform

March 2, 2002

The U.S. House of Representatives sent shock waves through the political and religious communities when it passed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill by a vote of 240-189. This bill if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, could drastically affect the way we communicate vital information about candidates during an election year.

The bill attempts to restrict "soft money" used in national campaigns but continues to allow its use in other campaigns. Soft money are donations to political organizations not intended for the direct benefit of individual candidates (each party raised about $250 million in the 2000 election). The two big national parties would no longer have access to unlimited donations from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. By contrast, the state parties may actually thrive under the bills provisions since they would be allowed to accept "soft money."

Of greater concern is the fact that the Shays-Meehan bill will infringe on the rights of individuals and organizations to pay for their own political statements that mention a candidate's name 30 days prior to a primary election and 60 days prior to the general election. Groups ranging from the National Right to Life Committee to the ACLU have strongly condemned this feature of the bill.

The supposed justification for this ban is an attempt to outlaw negative ads. But as David Limbaugh points out, this is a distortion of the English language. "You would think negative ads would be those that trash a candidate personally, such as the Gore campaign's deliberate release of the DWI allegation against George Bush the last weekend before the presidential election." But what is actually banned is any attempt to inform voters through broadcast media about where a candidate stands on abortion, gun control, or a multitude of other issues.

John Leo notes that under this legislation, "it would be a federal crime for an association of citizens to broadcast ads criticizing, praising, or even mentioning by name any congressional candidate within 60 days of a general election or within 30 days of a primary. Even an ad saying, 'Shays-Meehan is a mistake' would be a crime in the districts of Shays and Meehan."

So why did the House of Representatives pass the bill? Two reasons: expediency and opportunity. Passing a campaign finance reform is political expediency during an election years especially when the airwaves are full of news about Enron. Although there is no direct link between banning soft money and campaign ads and the bankruptcy of Enron, the climate of scandal no doubt changed votes and made possible the passage of this bill.

Political opportunity is an even bigger factor. Many commentators refer to this bill as "The Incumbent Protection Act." Incumbents already enjoy tremendous advantages in the form of gerrymandered districts, extensive name-recognition, and government perquisites (such an franking privileges). The current re-election rate was nearly 97.7 percent in the 2000 elections.

Campaign funds can be the great equalizer for a challenger but the ban on soft money contributions to the two national parties limits the amount of money available to challengers in House and Senate races. And limits on broadcast ads by independent groups 60 days before a general election again limits the influence a challenger can have just at the time most people are starting to pay attention to the election. These independent groups (non-profit groups and corporations) use these ads to alert voters to stands the incumbent takes on key issues.

Thomas Sowell says, "Members of Congress can lie through their teeth on television right on up to, and including, election day. But if you correct or challenge what they say with paid ads at the forbidden times, you will be violating federal law."

There is an exception to the ban on paid ads which I believe points out the absurdity of the bill. George Will notes that wealthy individuals can bypass this ban. "A millionaire can write a check for $1 million and run a political ad that the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club could not run using $1 contributions from 1 million individuals."

The Senate is now considering this bill. Although it passed a similar bill last year, it must now pass the House version so the bill isn't sent to conference committee, where the bill may languish. And if the bill is passed by the Senate, it will then be sent to President Bush who has indicated that he will sign it.

Some believe that the president's willingness to sign the bill stems in part from the financial benefits it will bestow upon him. In the last election, candidate Bush raised $1000 contributions from 61,000 people. This bill raised the limit on individual contributions from $1000 to $2000. If those same people are willing to increase their contributions next time, this bill just helped him raise an additional $61 million for the 2004 election.

Even if the president does sign the bill, reform won't take place immediately. The bill was carefully designed to kick in after the November 5 elections. And it is virtually certain that the bill will make its way to the Supreme Court where the bill may be struck down.

In the previous case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that only express advocacy for the election or defeat of a particular candidate could be regulated, not mere references to the candidate. And the justices also state that campaign contributions and expenditures are both forms of speech central to the First Amendment.

At the moment, Congress seems poised to limit free speech and dramatically affect the nature of elections in the United States. This bill erects huge hurdles along with outright bans to federal elections in an already over-regulated political system. Former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander once said that if our current laws existed before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine would have had to file "Common Sense" with the Federal Election Commission.

© 2002 Probe Ministries