Finance reform reaches some goals

WASHINGTON – It was a famous victory. The campaign finance bill now has passed both the House and Senate and likely will become law with President Bush’s signature.

The bill has one great virtue. It will end the ugly and indefensible practice of federal elected officials extorting six-figure contributions to their political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. It is clear and definitive about doing that, and it will be effective.

Beyond that, the consequences of the bill the Senate approved last year and the House passed early Thursday morning are probably not what supporters have been led to believe. The optimism of the backers is exceeded only by the folly of the House Republican leadership, who must be grateful that the Olympics captured the TV audience from C-SPAN, so relatively few people saw the string of fraudulent Republican amendments so nakedly intended to kill the bill. Their tactics give hypocrisy a bad name.

Still, parts of the bill are probably unconstitutional, and other parts largely unworkable or unenforceable. As with previous campaign finance legislation, it is likely to have big unintended consequences.

For example, the Democrats who furnished the bulk of the votes for passage may be dismayed to learn that in the view of Michael Malbin, the widely experienced head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, the bill hands President Bush an enormous advantage in his 2004 re-election campaign.

Here’s why: In 2000, when Bush rejected public financing of his race for the Republican nomination, he assembled a record treasury of “hard money” contributions (limited to $1,000 per person).

Another unintended consequence may well be to shift the flow of “soft money” from national parties to state and local parties. Contrary to the impression left by many editorials, this bill does not make all “soft money” contributions illegal. The amendment sponsored by Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin allows state and local parties to receive up to $10,000 a year ($20,000 per election cycle) in individual “soft money” contributions, as long as they do not spend it on ads for federal candidates.

Theoretically, one wealthy individual could drop $1 million or more into his favorite party, by writing separate checks to 50 state or local party headquarters.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that all four of the sponsors – Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold, Reps. Chris Shays and Marty Meehan – are notable for their maverick tendencies. It is likely this legislation will breed more of their kind.

Finally, the issue the opponents of this bill tried without success to raise is its impact on the relative power of interest groups and political parties. The most dubious parts of the measure are those regulating “issue ads” that non-party groups run during election campaigns. These provisions implicate basic First Amendment rights of expression, and if the courts find them unconstitutional, then the net effect may well be to empower interest groups, while restricting the parties’ participation in campaigns.

Interest groups are as American as apple pie. But their agendas are, by definition, narrower than those of the broad coalitions called Republicans and Democrats. It will not help our politics to magnify the power of narrow interests at the expense of the two-party system.

David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.

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