Stop me, before I fund-raise again!
For two weeks, the United States Senate ignored the nation’s more pressing matters while it debated the subject of campaign finance reform. Instead of acting on the tax cuts needed to stimulate our economy, the Senate focused its attention on a subject about which most Americans care little or nothing.
If you watched the debate, you learned that fund-raising is hard, time-consuming work and many U.S. Senators do not like it one bit. Nevertheless, to be elected or re-elected, candidates must spend large sums of money. That is an unfortunate fact of political life.
To be viable, a candidate for the U.S. Senate must spend astronomical amounts of money on television, radio and print media advertising, yard signs, literature and all the paraphernalia that goes with the modern political campaign. Campaign experts say a U.S. Senator must raise $75,000 per day to build and maintain a war chest that discourages potential challengers or, if challenged, will provide the funds needed to run a successful reelection campaign.
The First Amendment gives every American (not foreigners or foreign powers such as Red China) a right to express his or her opinion on whom should hold elective office. The U.S. Supreme Court says making monetary or in-kind contributions to political candidates and political parties is a form of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Bush Administration is all for campaign finance reform provided it meets three tests: (1) Every dollar contributed to candidates or political parties or to political action committees must be accountable and identifiable, (2) First Amendment rights must not be abridged and (3) Salaried workers must not be forced to contribute to candidates whom they do not support through contributions made by their employers or their labor unions. The latter test is called: payroll protection.
At this point, the results of two weeks of debate and voting on a campaign finance reform act are not entirely clear. Apparently, the Senate voted to ban so-called “soft money” that goes to political parties, political action committees and independent action groups. For sure, the Senate wants to raise the so-called “hard money” limits in federal campaigns from $1,000 per individual in the primary election and $1,000 in the general election to $2,000 in each election for a total of $4,000.
Assuming that his supporters who have hitherto given him two $1,000 checks can afford to give him two $2,000 checks, one Senator said: “This is great. Now, I’ll only have to hold half as many fund-raisers.” That remains to be seen.
What will happen to this Senate version of campaign finance reform when it reaches the U.S. House of Representatives also remains to be seen. For sure, the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually strike down certain anti-free speech provisions. But the Senate made sure that the unconstitutionality of one portion of its bill would not invalidate the remaining portions.
Assuming the banning of soft money actually works, many Senators (especially the Democrats), may find themselves the victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Historically, the Republican rank-and-file are better givers of hard money than the Democrats. Historically, the Democrats do better at raising soft money from labor unions and special interest groups such as the Sierra Club.
Other than Republican Senator John McCain (who has taken campaign finance reform as his atonement for the Keating Five Scandal), the push for campaign finance reform as come from liberal Democrats. Now, they may find the eventual campaign finance reform law will be a major migraine in their posteriors.
For years, many of these so-called reformers got credit for voting for reform when they knew full well it would not pass and thus limit their fund-raising activities. President Bush says he will sign a “reasonable” bill. Gulp. The reformers must now either put-up or shut-up. Watch for them try to find loopholes in the campaign finance reform laws they say they wanted.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former political campaign consultant.
©2001. William Hamilton.