- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

In the weeks since the collapse of the Enron Corp., cries for the enactment of campaign-finance reform have increased exponentially. Proponents of reform seem to believe that if bills such as the McCain-Feingold legislation in the Senate or the Shays-Meehan bill in the House had been law, such a disaster could have been prevented. Rep. Marty Meehan stated, "It's wrong. The end result always is that working families get the shaft. That's what happened in Enron."

I agree that the Enron situation is wrong and tragic. I do believe that the federal government can learn from the Enron example and enact change, including stricter rules for 401(K) plans and changes to accounting standards. However, I do not support the enactment of knee-jerk, poorly crafted campaign-finance reform legislation, such as the Shays-Meehan bill that the House is considering today. This bill would not have stopped Enron from using dubious accounting methods, and it certainly won't limit the influence of outside groups on political elections.

Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan claim that they want to ban soft money. Only, they want to exempt individuals, corporations, labor unions and outside interest groups from having to adhere to that ban. So to whom exactly does this soft money ban apply? Political parties? At the national level, yes; however, the Shays-Meehan bill will allow significant donations to state and local parties for use on federal elections. I guess that leaves us with … well, no one. No single entity is entirely banned from soliciting, receiving or spending money. In my estimation, that is hardly a soft-money ban.

If we are to enact a soft-money ban, then Congress should ensure that it effectively eliminates the ability of all groups parties, corporations and labor unions to use these unregulated funds to influence elections. During consideration of Shays-Meehan in July 2001, I offered an amendment that would do just that. My amendment would have prevented corporations and labor unions from using general treasury funds for campaign activities that are in essence electioneering.

Currently, both corporations and labor unions exploit two little-known exceptions in campaign laws. These exceptions allow groups to engage in get-out-the-vote activities and communicate with their members. However, these activities increasingly are becoming an unregulated and unchecked tool for electioneering. Unions send out full-color glossy brochures extolling the virtues of Democratic candidates. They also send union "members" door-to-door with the intent of registering individuals to vote. These members just happen to be willing to discuss the voting records of the various Democratic candidates on "issues that count" issues that are solely determined by union leaders, often without much influence from local and regional members and groups.

The Supreme Court has permitted such expenditures by unions because the Supreme Court believes that the contributions supporting these activities are voluntary. However, evidence hardly supports this assertion. Despite the fact that unions collectively spent approximately $100 million on the 1996 federal election, fund-raising appeals in 1998 to individual union members of whom there are more than 16 million to support political activity raised a mere 2 cents a member, for a grand total of $243,000. This clearly indicates the falsity of the union's assertion that their expenditure of money on political activity is endorsed and supported by union members.

Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold could also prove problematic with regard to corporations. As they are currently written, both bills will continue to allow corporations to manipulate the rules governing the financing of public elections. In fact, by eliminating the role of parties, corporations and labor unions could become increasingly reliant on loopholes allowing them to spend funds from their general treasuries to influence elections activities that would be undertaken without federal regulation.

Proponents of campaign-finance reform point to Enron and proclaim that it is evidence of the need for campaign-finance reform. I point to Enron and recognize that neither the Shays-Meehan nor the McCain-Feingold bill would have made a difference, and both could actually make the situation worse in the future. If we are to level the playing field and ensure that working families have equal access, then we cannot pass Shays-Meehan without significant alterations that will keep wealthy corporations and labor unions from playing an even greater role in our elections.


Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican, is former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a member of the Committee on House Administration.


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