- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

The campaign finance bill that passed the House Friday is one of the most serious threats to American political freedom since, well, the last campaign reform bill. This is a bill that, for starters, would take away the basic freedom of public interest groups to present their views in paid TV ads in the last 60 days of a general election and in the last 30 days of a primary.

Days before the House acted on the bill, liberal groups like Campaign for America were running ads in California and Texas that asked voters to urge their lawmakers to support it. Ironically, if this bill had been law, those ads would have been illegal because both states are in the midst of primary elections. Have we descended to the point in our valiant history that we will now prohibit groups of people from engaging in a free and open dialogue over the airwaves at election time?

Certainly the courts will strike down this draconian, undemocratic provision. But it is a sad day in this country when our lawmakers are using the force of law to protect themselves from political criticism and challengers.

If its supporters were truly honest, they would have titled this bill the Incumbent Protection Act of 2002, because that is its real purpose.

The bill accomplishes this in three ways:

First, it increases the amount of money that candidates can receive in direct contributions from individuals from $1,000 to $2,000. Who benefits from that? House and Senate incumbents with huge contributor lists who will double their fund-raising take. Challengers, who have no such donor lists, will find it harder to compete.

Second, by denying the national parties the ability to raise unregulated soft money, the party campaign committees will have much less money to help challengers defeat vulnerable incumbents.

Third, the bill bans issue ads that advocacy groups usually run on TV and radio in the final weeks of a campaign when the voters are paying the most attention. These ads have historically been against incumbents.

"We won't be able to communicate effectively with citizens about what their elected representatives are doing," said Doug Johnson, the National Right To Life Committee's chief lobbyist.

The bill's proponents argue it will get rid of big money that has corrupted our government. In fact, it will do no such thing. It will merely redirect that money to other groups and uses.

The two major national parties will certainly have less money. They raked in half a billion dollars in soft money alone in 2000. But that money won't simply disappear. The unions, who gave millions to the Democrats, will simply have more money to spend on grass-roots organizing and in-kind contributions, most of it off the books.

Corporations and wealthy individuals will give more to organizations like the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, trade associations, etc., to conduct their political activities.

These groups will be the new "mini-parties" that will be surrogates or conduits for the major parties. They will lobby. They will be involved in the campaigns in other unseen ways. They will spend more money.

Rich people, too, will be the big winners in this new age of so-called campaign finance reform. "They can spend what they want for their own TV and radio ads, even in the final 60 days of an election if they do it independently of a campaign," election law attorney Jan Baran told me.

Moreover, wealthy individuals can give money to organizations other than a political party to spend on advertising. Expect to see a lot of that in the future.

This bill would impose a mountain of new, complex campaign finance restrictions on candidates for federal office. Even the people who run the Federal Election Commission say they do not understand much of it.

FEC Chairman David Mason said last week, before the bill was passed, that it "would make it more difficult to achieve consistent, fair, and, yes, vigorous enforcement of campaign finance laws even laws already on the books."

Mr. Mason says "significant provisions of Shays-Meehan are so complex, so vague or so broad as to be unworkable or unenforceable."

President Bush, apparently, has decided to sign this wretched piece of legislation if it reaches his desk. We can only hope he changes his mind when he understands what is in it.

There was a time in our country when the purpose of campaign reform was to encourage more Americans to participate in the rough and tumble of our democratic process. This bill, sadly, seeks to keep people out of the political arena at election time so incumbents feel safer. What have we come to?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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