President Bush is reportedly about to commit a cynical and opportunistic act unworthy of his young presidency: signing a disaster of a campaign-finance-reform bill.
The bill, as it seems likely to emerge from Congress, is perfect veto bait for Bush: 1) He thinks it is unconstitutional; 2) it violates the principles for reform that he defended during his campaign and enunciated during last year’s legislative debate; and 3) it will discourage exactly the sort of engaged citizenry that Bush devotes so much rhetoric to promoting. But Bush seems ready to ignore all of this and instead heed his own narrow political and financial interests, in a capitulation that will require double-backing on his commitments.
The bill, of course, eliminates the unlimited corporate “soft money” donations to political parties, which are supposed to be especially corrupting. But reformers never bother to explain how it is possible for both parties to be corrupted by soft money, when they advocate diametrically opposed positions on most issues. The implication is that the Republican party’s conservatism is bought and paid for, and so is the Democratic party’s liberalism. This is a pinched and cynical — not to mention false — way to view the world.
The parties are huge, sprawling national organizations pulled every which way by competing special interests. This is exactly the way politics is supposed to work. The same applies to the legislative and regulatory realms. Almost every victory that Enron — the proximate cause of this latest legislation — won in Washington came by prevailing over some other special interest. The Chicago Board of Trade opposed an Enron-supported regulatory exemption for derivatives trading. The utilities opposed Enron’s vision of electricity deregulation.
There’s nothing wrong with this, unless you consider petitioning the government and contributing to candidates and parties somehow inherently corrupting, as many reformers do. They talk of the current legislation as a prelude to further efforts to chase private money from politics. As a mere prelude, it is appalling enough. The soft-money ban would make the national political parties poorer, and diminish their influence. The parties would have less money for advertising, voter-registration drives, direct-mail pieces, and so on. More important, they would have less money for supporting challengers, who don’t yet have the fund-raising clout of incumbents.
The current bill is suspiciously full of such provisions helpful to incumbents. One of the most notorious would prevent citizens’ groups funded with unlimited soft-money donations from running ads mentioning an officeholder by name 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election. This would force smaller advocacy organizations either to go silent during these periods, or go to the expense and trouble of registering as PACs funded only by limited hard-money donations. (Remember when PACs were the reformers’ bogeymen? That seems long ago.) In general, a web of new rules for fundraising, advertising, and “coordination” with candidates would tie outside political groups in knots, limiting their flexibility and ultimately their expression.
The optimistic view of all this is that money will inevitably find a way into the system, and so it will. In a free country, it takes more than one sprawling campaign-finance bill to suppress political speech effectively. But every layer of complexity, every new rule requiring the expertise of a campaign-finance lawyer to negotiate, raises the entry fee to politics. It makes it harder for ordinary citizens to get involved, and makes politics more of a game for experts and insiders, who on the Republican side are urging Bush to sign the bill even as they work to invent ways around it.
It is dismaying that Bush has come to this pass. Depending on how closely you want to read his March 2001 letter on campaign finance, the current bill violates any number of the principles he set out for reform. Bush supported a soft-money ban. On the other hand, he wrote that any bill “should help political parties more fully engage citizens in the political process.” This bill does no such thing. He wrote that the bill should “protect the rights of citizen groups to engage in issue advocacy.” This is exactly the sort of advocacy the bill would hamstring. He wrote that reform shouldn’t favor “incumbents over challengers.” This bill does. He wrote that it should include provisions protecting shareholders and union members from having their money spent on politics against their wishes. This bill doesn’t.
Bush did not fight for one — not one — of these principles during the debate. He, of course, has a war to run. But perhaps he could have taken some time away from, say, touting the “USA Freedom Corps” to try to influence a substantial reworking of the nation’s election system, especially one that raises troubling constitutional questions. Even supporters of the bill admit that parts of it are of dubious constitutionality. In an extraordinary abdication of his responsibilities under the Constitution, however, the president will probably sign the bill in part because the courts can be expected to find elements of it unconstitutional. This is why his aides think signing it is so clever — Bush gets the credit for going along, while the bill is sent straight into constitutional limbo.
The expectation that chunks of the bill will be thrown out is probably, although not necessarily, accurate. The soft-money ban is arguably unconstitutional, although the Supreme Court has repeatedly said large contributions can be corrupting. It seems likelier that the 60-day restriction will be judged unconstitutional. And the same goes for the broad and vague provisions defining “coordination” between candidates and outside groups, which kick in a host of other regulations. The Supreme Court has previously made it clear that such restrictions on political speech — the right at the core of the First Amendment — must be extremely narrow and clear-cut. The idea has traditionally been to carve out a broad, easily understood safe harbor for political speech, which is exactly what the campaign-finance bill intends to undercut. But, all that said, there is no guarantee of how the Court will vote, especially given that the closest questions will probably be decided by that weather-vane justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
All the more reason for Bush not to pass the buck to the Court. But Bush clearly figures he doesn’t need what would play in the media as another Enron-related political headache. Meanwhile, he can raise more hard money — the limits for which are doubled by the bill — than any other presidential candidate, so why should he put himself out over the general fortunes of the Republican party, let alone the Democratic party? Finally, his aides are sometimes reported to think that signing the bill would rob John McCain of his signature issue and any chance of mounting an independent bid in 2004. But no one outside the most devoted McCainiacs thinks such a scenario is plausible. The fact is that the public has little interest in campaign-finance reform. Bush would pay little or no political price for giving it the veto it so richly deserves, and asking Congress to send him another version that, at the very least, is clearly constitutional.
But Bush seems likely to listen to the smart set, instead of what one assumes would be his better instincts. Conservatives were forewarned that, for instance, Bush’s education policy might not be much to their liking. He had promised as much for two years. His support for an over-regulatory campaign-finance reform would be something different, not just a disappointment, but a betrayal.