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The illusion of campaign finance reform

Illustration by Josh Hagler

By Shane Dale
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday Feb. 19, 2002

Last Wednesday and into the early hours of Thursday, the House of Representatives was busy protecting its jobs and possibly violating First Amendment rights.

The so-called bipartisan campaign finance reform bill was passed by a vote of 240-189 at 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Valentine's Day, concluding a 16-hour marathon of debates, rebuttals and more than a dozen amendment proposals on Capitol Hill. The bill, which was cosponsored by Congressmen Christopher Shays, R-Conn, and Marty Meehan, D-Mass, was supported by 198 Democrats, 41 Republicans and one Independent.

The bill not only puts an end to all soft money in federal campaigns but also disallows special interest groups from running so-called negative campaign ads 60 days prior to a general election and 30 days before a primary.

Issues of freedom of speech, of which opponents of campaign finance reform suggest that the Shays-Meehan bill is in direct violation, will be worked out in the US Supreme Court - that is, if the bill passes through the Senate filibuster-free and is signed into law by President Bush. If the Supreme Court decides that the Shays-Meehan bill is unconstitutional, all other arguments against the bill are academic.

Following passage of the bill in the House, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., boldly displayed his lack of priorities. Just weeks after blocking a vote on an economic stimulus bill, Daschle said he wants to put the bill up for a vote in the Senate as soon as possible.

The sentiment of those elected officials in favor of campaign finance reform was echoed by Senator Daschle late last week.

"We have the first real chance in a generation to limit the access of special interests to the political process,'' the majority leader proudly stated.

What he might be forgetting is that the abolition of soft money is not one that necessarily favors Democrats. Al Gore received more soft money during the 2000 presidential campaign than did George W. Bush.

And while campaign finance reform supposedly keeps special interest groups - corporations and labor unions - from dominating campaign spending, the measure provides for nothing more than an illusion of a return of political power to the individual.

There's little doubt that special interest groups will work through several loopholes in the Shays-Meehan bill to contribute just as much, if not more, to campaigns as they have in the past.

And if the bill somehow escapes from Congress loophole-free, it's still very unrealistic to expect a significant change in political contributions from all parties concerned.

"The real danger to the political system is you have these special interests raising money outside the party system, outside the political system, and those special interests start controlling the campaign agenda through the millions of dollars they spend on advertising," said Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee.

We'll see.

Speaking of advertisements, the Shays-Meehan bill's aforementioned ban on TV commercials by special interest groups is absurd. In the first place, it's obvious that most voters don't begin to pay attention to political campaigns until, at the latest, a month or two prior to an election. The 240 Congressmen who voted for Shays-Meehan are well aware of that. The ad restrictions were added to the bill for the sole purpose of promoting their own job security.

Members of the House are already successful in their re-election bids 90 percent of the time, largely in part to simple name recognition. With these new bans on "attack ads," look for that figure to rise to 95 percent or more within the next several election cycles.

Think about it: If running negative ads within 60 days of an election is unethical, shouldn't it be wrong all the time? Banning ads for that particular time frame was no accident.

The Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill does little more than instill a false sense of morality in federal elections. Campaign spending will continue to rise, as will the re-election success rates of our representatives and senators.

Rush Limbaugh, who claims the bill blatantly violates the First Amendment, is also fond of calling campaign finance reform the "Incumbency Protection Act."

He's right on the money - pun intended.


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