- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

When the U.S. House of Representatives returns from its July 4th break, it will begin debating campaign-finance reform legislation. Already, however, some fireworks have erupted.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who spearheaded passage through the Senate of legislation he cosponsored with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, has been lobbying dozens of House Republicans for whom he campaigned last year to support the Shays-Meehan bill, which is the House version of McCain-Feingold. Mr. McCain recently sent form letters to 24 House Republicans, 16 of whom are freshmen. He plans to follow up his letters with personal chats this week while members are at home on recess.
So far, Mr. McCain's heavy-handed lobbying efforts, which one House Republican leadership aide characterized as worthy of "The Sopranos," an HBO fictional series about New Jersey mobsters, were not having their intended effect. Only two of the 16 Republican freshmen have endorsed Shays-Meehan. The other 14 support an alternative bill endorsed by Republican leaders.
In a June 20 letter to Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, Mr. McCain said he recalled their "personal conversations about our shared passion for reform." Mr. McCain continued, "We both promised to lead the fight to make meaningful campaign finance reform law," adding, "I urge you to keep up that commitment to reform in the coming weeks." Implicit in Mr. McCain's letter was an expectation that Mr. Tiberi would support the Shays-Meehan bill.
But neither Shays-Meehan nor McCain-Feingold represents reform as much as each represents an attack on free speech and America's political party system. Both bills would outlaw soft money, the unregulated but fully disclosed contributions parties receive from corporations, unions and individuals to finance party-building activities like voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Soft money also funds issue ads, the principal way parties communicate their views, their policies and their differences with other political parties. In a full frontal assault on the First Amendment, both Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold would severely restrict the ability of labor unions, corporations and non-profit organizations in other words, legitimate interest groups to fund broadcast ads mentioning a federal candidate within 60 days of a general election and within 30 days of a primary. These periods, of course, happen to be the very periods during which free speech rights matter most.
As if drastically restricting free speech and emasculating political parties were not bad enough, McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan would also serve, very conveniently, as highly effective incumbent-protection vehicles. Political parties, after all, are more likely than political action committees to support challengers. Both bills would also raise the hard-money contribution limits for incumbent senators unlucky enough to face wealthy, self-financed challengers, several of whom have scared the daylights out of many senators because of the success of their self-financed campaigns. Both bills also require television broadcasters to charge candidates the lowest rates offered in the preceding year and would prohibit broadcasters from pre-empting the politicians' ads for the benefit of higher-paying advertisers. Such price caps will guarantee a shortage of ads and, thus, increase the electoral advantages of the better-known incumbents.
Responding to Mr. McCain's letter, Mr. Tiberi astutely observed, "I do share your commitment to reform. However, I am convinced that the best way to achieve these goals is to require swift, full and public disclosure of all campaign contributions and expenses." Well said, Mr. Tiberi.

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