The media would have you believe that there is some overwhelming public demand for some sort of campaign-finance reform, and indeed the topic has been bandied about for some time; I took a shot at it way back in 1996. One of the problems is that sneaky little word "reform", which carries wholly-unwarranted connotations of "improve" when all it really means is "reshape". The shape of things after McCain-Feingold will be different, but I really don't see how it will be improved.

The difference between "hard" money and "soft" money, for instance, is essentially specious. In 1978, the Federal Election Commission issued an administrative ruling to the effect that contributions that didn't explicitly call for the election of a specific individual or of a specific political party did not fall under its jurisdiction, though this loophole was not generally exploited until 1988, when it was discovered that "Candidate B is a despoiler of young boys" (or whatever) was at least as effective a pitch as "Vote for Candidate A" and didn't require any expenditure of FEC-regulated dollars. Following the Law of Unintended Consequences, the parties hoarded their hard-money contributions for the latter and went whoring after soft-money contributions to pay for the former. The FEC, which had had ten years to look into the matter before the first big soft-money grab and has had fourteen years since then, could presumably have modified their original ruling, either to establish that ads against a candidate counted as ads for his opponent, or, more sensibly, that the fine line they chose to draw no longer existed de facto and therefore would no longer be enforced de jure. Faced with these two choices, the FEC, steeped in long-standing Washington tradition, opted to do nothing. The McCain-Feingold approach to this matter is to increase the legal allotment of hard money and to declare soft money illegal, an approach that will increase the effort poured into looking for loopholes with no substantive benefit to the regulators, let alone to the electorate.

But that isn't even the main problem with the bill. The final version of McCain-Feingold prohibits "issue ads" — which is to say, the sort of ads that used to be financed with soft money — within thirty days of a primary or within sixty days of an election, a notion on par with requiring weather forecasts to be issued one month in advance. And it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination (which means that even I can do it) to predict what will happen here: A Congressman gets himself embroiled in some sort of scandal in late September, but it can't even be mentioned by his opponents. As a protection measure for incumbents, this is hard to beat — as are Congressional incumbents themselves, who are routinely reelected ninetysomething percent of the time even without this tool at their disposal.

Nor does it even have to involve a scandal. The American Civil Liberties Union points out:

"The blackout periods coincide with crucial legislative periods, including the months of September and October as well as months during the Spring. During Presidential years, the blackout periods would include the entire Presidential primary season, conceivably right up through the August national nominating conventions. For example had this provision been law in 2000, for most of the year it would have been illegal for the ACLU or the National Right to Life Committee to criticize the McCain-Feingold bill as an example of unconstitutional campaign finance legislation or to urge elected officials to oppose that bill! The only time the blackout ban would be lifted would be in August, when many Americans are on vacation!"

The ACLU and the NRLC aren't exactly pals, but the statement speaks for itself: McCain-Feingold, as passed, screws people at all points in the political continuum. President Bush has not, as of this writing, signed this bill. In my opinion, he would be doing the country a greater service if he tore it up.

The Vent

24 March 2002

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