Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

One against the crowd -- BY now Campaign Finance Reform isn't just a complex political issue, it's a shibboleth, a magic wand that'll make corruption disappear, a universal elixir that'll clean up politics, an abracadabra that'll remove stains in an instant ... .

No snake-oil salesman could be more convincing than the John McCains and Common Causers pushing this remedy for all that ails American politics. As a political staple, Campaign Finance Reform now ranks somewhere up there with mom and apple pie for every politician who wants to be thought enlightened.

It's those who don't support it who have to explain why they're not voting with the crowd.

Amid all the pressure to support this latest consumer product, the buyer may forget to beware, and fail to notice that it masks another attempt to shield incumbents from criticism. That's why it was refreshing to note that one senator from Arkansas isn't joining the herd rushing to pass this bill: Tim Hutchinson. Even though he's on the list of Endangered GOP Senators this fall.

Don't get Senator Hutchinson wrong, which his reflexive critics will be happy to do. He's all for the part of the bill that would ban soft money -- the unrestricted flow of cash to the political parties and from there to congressional campaigns. With the possible exception of political action committees, soft money may be the greatest source of corruption in American politics. This bill bans it, and it's about time.

But sponsors of this "reform'' bill couldn't help looking out for themselves. While banning soft money, they also banned groups from even mentioning any congressional candidate's name in their ads within 30 days of a primary election, and within 60 days of a general election. That's when the ax falls on free speech.

There's nothing congressmen seem to hate more than some uppity bunch of mere citizens coming into their district and taking out ads against them. So they're sneaking this little proviso into law, hoping nobody will much notice what an abomination it is.

Meanwhile, the country's opinionmakers -- in mental lockstep - hail Camp. Fin. Ref. as a victory for clean politics, civic virtue and all that good stuff. Stifling a few voices surely is a small price to pay for such a great leap forward. First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment.

Campaign Finance Reform, what crimes are committed in thy name. Can anybody think this bill is going to take money out of politics? It will simply drive the big bucks underground. Even now congressmen, their staffs and supporters are meeting to ponder how to keep the cash in their campaigns after this "reform'' is enacted. And groups that want to campaign for or against a congressman will simply spend their money before the 30-day and 60-day bans on their speech go into effect. Result: congressional campaigns will grow even longer. O happy day.

Once this bill becomes law, more and more ways will be found to fund congressional campaigns without actually mentioning the candidates' names, and it will become just that much harder to trace the money in politics. But you can bet it'll be there.

Money in politics is like water in nature. Dam it here and it will emerge there. We are about to witness an explosive growth in the kind of well-financed lobbies that pushed this change in the campaign laws. These partisan outfits with nonpartisan names will in turn find ways to support candidates who support their aims -- through "educational'' campaigns, get-out-the-vote drives, the usual. And they'll raise and spend the soft money from corporations and unions that the national parties no longer can.

In just three years (1997-1999) the coalition backing Campaign Finance Reform spent more than $73 million and puffed names like Shays, Meehan and McCain. In the future, other well-heeled lobbies will ally themselves with other politicians, and though they won't be able to endorse them explicitly, they'll do so indirectly -- and maybe more effectively. As for any group that wants to campaign openly for or against a congressman, it'll be gagged just before the election. Shut up, they'll explain.

It's not the high-minded censors behind this bill who depress most. Cynical Observer is accustomed to the John McCains who think nobody should have a right to criticize them within 60 days of an election. That kind of hypocrisy is familiar. You see it all the time in the usual defenders of democracy when the great god Demos turns on them, and it dawns on these idealists that the people need restraining.

No, what depresses is that this president, George W. Bush, who used to criticize this sort of elitism, and who last year spoke up for Americans' right to speak up, is making noises about going along with this insult and injury to the First Amendment. That's right: the same president who, just a year ago, said he would support only the kind of Campaign Finance reform that would "protect the rights of citizen groups to engage in issue advocacy.'' This bill would jeopardize those rights because it's an awfully thin line between discussing an issue and discussing specific candidates. It could make lawbreakers of Americans who did nothing but air their strongly held views on an issue/candidate.

A year ago, the president also vowed not to support a bill that favors "incumbents over challengers.'' Which this bill would seem to do.

How account for W.'s change of tone? Well, he may think that here's one way for a me-too president to deny the opposition the Campaign Finance Reform issue. (''Hey, I signed that bill!'')

But there's a more practical reason for his changing course: The president is one of the incumbents this bill favors. Because it doubles the limit on hard-money contributions, which he's never had trouble raising. The limit goes from $1,000 to $2,000. Translate that into 2004 dollars, and he gets a big leg up.

Last time out, in 2000, W. was able to get 62,000 donors to ante up the maximum contribution for a total of $62 million -- compared to Al Gore's $24 million from maxed-out donors. Come 2004, W. could raise $124 million from his biggest givers. And suddenly the fine principles he enunciated last year about fighting for Americans' right to free expression begin to fade, the way principles will when opportunism beckons.

Of course this gag rule, already past the House and now before the Senate, is unconstitutional. And it should be overturned in court once it makes it into law. But stranger restrictions on speech have been upheld by courts, at least for a time. That's why it's not just judges who should uphold constitutional freedoms, but senators and congressmen. They, too, have sworn an oath to the Constitution of the United States.

That's what makes Tim Hutchinson's stand against this fraud so welcome - and impressive. He knows it's going to cost him. He knows that, in this election year, he's going to be pictured as some kind of ogre for standing up for every American's right to go into any congressional district in the country and say what he or she or they think.

But he's going to defend our rights anyway. And that includes the right of any group that might like to run a commercial against Tim Hutchinson come election time. Those who will attack him for his stand tend to forget that it's their liberty he's defending, too.

In the end, beyond all the complexities and evasions, the basic issue here is simple. It's not campaign finance reform, that mirage which is always just one more law away. It's freedom of speech. Tim Hutchinson put it plain: "I don't care if it's the Sierra Club or National Right to Life -- they ought to be able to criticize Congress. I can't in clear conscience vote for anything I think is unconstitutional.''

Tim Hutchinson isn't going to be bullied by a mindless slogan. He hasn't done the popular thing. He hasn't done the expedient thing in this election year. He's just done the right thing.

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