- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

The Club for Growth is an innocent name for what many people would regard as a sinister special interest that tries to affect the decisions of federal lawmakers.
What the group does is find congressional candidates who share its fervent belief in deregulation and tax cuts. It then encourages its members to write $1,000 checks to those campaigns. Members mail in contributions, the organization bundles them up and sends them to the candidates, and, if things go as planned, candidates indebted to the Club for Growth get elected. Recently, it raised $150,000 in three weeks to help a California congressional candidate.
This is the sort of monied influence that the campaign finance bill passed last week by the House is supposed to stop. The Club for Growth is one group specifically cited as a menace by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the leader of the reform cause.
But David Keating, executive director of the organization, doesn't sound scared by the effort to put him out of business. Just the opposite. "It's probably going to help the Club for Growth," he says.
Groups that engage in "bundling" of direct campaign donations, he says, will be more important under the new rules than they are today. "It's like changing the football rules to make a field goal worth 4 points," he explains. "Teams with good kickers will do better."
The bill purports to defang special interests by banning "soft money" unrestricted donations by corporations, unions and individuals that goes to national political parties. The parties use these donations to run ads pushing their candidates and disparaging their opponents. Last year, the two major parties raised $160 million in soft money.
Deprived of these funds, candidates will have more need of "hard money" funds given directly to individual campaigns. In addition, the measure raises the maximum each donor can give to a candidate, from $1,000 to $2,000 per election. So hard money, of the sort raised by groups that do bundling, will claim a bigger role in the whole political process. Instead of owing gratitude to their national parties, candidates will owe the Club for Growth and other organizations like it.
The House bill does have provisions that are supposed impede these groups in other areas. It would restrict them from running ads mentioning anyone running for office within 60 days of a general election, something many of them do to help one candidate or hinder another.
The rule on issue ads, however, practically has "unconstitutional" written all over it, because the Supreme Court has said such efforts are an exercise of free speech. So after our elections have been freed of monied influence, groups raising and spending money to achieve influence can expect to grow and prosper.
That's not the only way in which the likely effects of reform will be much different from what's been promised. One unadvertised feature is the hefty boost it would give to the people who need it least namely, congressional incumbents.
The soft-money ban will be particularly helpful to candidates who are already in office, because it deprives challengers of a crucial source of support. Not many big donors want to give to an upstart who is trying to unseat an established incumbent: The chance of success is too low, and the danger of retribution by the incumbent is too high. The only people who really have an interest in mounting such difficult challenges are the parties. That's what they've used much of their soft money to do. Without soft money, challengers will find it harder to raise the funds to get their message out.
Democrats fear that the higher hard money limits will help Republicans, who generally have more fat cats to call. But the real advantage will accrue to incumbents of both parties, who generally can find many affluent people eager to be their friends. So the incumbent re-election rate, which was 98.5 percent in the last two congressional elections, will only rise.
Instead of increasing accountability in our campaigns, the campaign reforms will reduce it. Why? Because that $160 million that was given to the parties as soft money is not going to be donated to soup kitchens and homeless shelters instead it's going to be deployed in other ways to affect elections.
People who give money now because they want to elect Republicans or Democrats are not going to give up just because John McCain wants them to. They're just going to look for ways to get around the law, such as giving money to groups that make "independent expenditures" on behalf of particular candidates.
The problem is not that campaign reform won't make a difference it just won't do any good. Or, as one Republican expert told Newsweek magazine: "Everything will change, and nothing. And all the lawyers will get rich."

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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