Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2002 / 9 Adar, 5762
Debra J. Saunders
Dirty bill for a dirty mess
CLEANING up campaign finance is a dirty job. It's
dirty because the public wants to be lied to. Voters
want to believe that all Washington has to do is pass
a single reform bill and the money scandals will go
It's dirty because Capitol Hill pols have figured that
Most of all, it's dirty because parts of the
Shays-Meehan bill, passed by the House last week,
seem to violate the Constitution.
I hate to invoke free speech, because D.C.
Republicans are so phony when they rail about the
First Amendment violations in the bill. (Look how
many Repubs were ready to kiss off the
Constitution in 1995 on an anti-flag desecretion
measure.) Then, when it comes to the right of Enron
to give six figures to the GOP, these Repubs cry
Me, I have no fear of abrogating the right of Big
Money to buy influence in Washington. I do
applaud efforts to try to limit the influence of big
money on federal elections.
But here's the rub: If you limit donations to
campaigns and parties, you need to find a way to
limit donations to independent campaign
organizations. Otherwise, Fat Cats will create their
own better-financed independent campaigns -- that
aren't subject to limits -- to help or hurt a particular
candidate. And they'll end up with even more
The folks behind Shays-Meehan knew that. So their
bill prohibited organizations from broadcasting
political ads before general and primary elections,
unless their heavily regulated political action
committees bought the ads.
The intent was good. The bill, however, may well
be unconstitutional. Elections lawyer Allison
Hayward noted that one problem with the bill is that
when it talks about political speech, "they don't
define what support or attack is."
So, as Douglas Johnson of the National Right to
Life Committee explained, if a vote on a
partial-birth abortion bill were to occur close to an
election, Shays-Meehan would make it very difficult
for his group to run TV ads that prompt voters to
contact their representative or senator.
What about organizations that don't have PACs?
Or don't believe in PACs? The ACLU's
Washington director Laura W. Murphy responded,
"I think it's an outrage that this Congress is going to
force us to become a partisan organization merely
for the right to say, 'Tell Congressman Jones to
oppose the flag burning amendment.' That ad will
now be interpreted by the Federal Election
Commission to be for or against a candidate."
A spokesman for Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.,
isn't sympathetic. "That's what our bill does," he
said. "If you want to fund ads, fine. Do it through a
PAC." He cited a study that found that less than
than 1 percent of political ads in 1998 were "true
issue advocacy" ads, instead of thinly veiled
Johnson asked, "What is it about these ads that is
The answer is: It's not the ads that are pernicious,
it's the money- grubbing by lawmakers to get the
money to air them that stinks.
But if the money-grubbing is bad, so are laws that
promise more than they can deliver. D.C. elections
lawyer Jan Baran said of the bill, "They're regulating
in an area that is full of constitutional land mines, and
they don't seem to care.''
Meanwhile, voters are so hungry for something that
appears to be a reform that they don't care what it
Comment JWR contributor Debra J. Saunders's column by clicking here.
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© 2000, Creators Syndicate