- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

The campaign-finance reformers are on the brink of success: They are determined to minimize the role of the political parties and that is about to happen. Even more important (to them), they are trying to eliminate the last vestiges of involvement by corporations in the American political process and that is just around the corner as well. The "evil" money in politics, from their perspective, is money from business interests and nothing else is as important as ridding the system of that "corrupting" influence.

This is hailed as the bill to end all Enrons. Yet, in their zeal to stamp out corporate and business voices, the reformers have done an odd thing: They have resurrected wealthy individual donors as the political kingpins in America.

Ironically, the bill unwinds one of the cornerstone principles of the post-Watergate "reforms" of 1974, which had deliberately diluted the relative influence of wealthy individuals.

Around the time "Welcome Back Kotter" was the No. 1 television sitcom in the mid-1970s, reformers of that era claimed a motivating factor for the changes in campaign-finance laws was the need to quell the stench of Watergate and massive amounts of money from a few very rich individuals: Do the names Robert Vesco, Bebe Rebozo, or Howard Hughes ring any bells?

The law passed then has, for nearly 30 years, made wealthy individuals relatively less important than groups of smaller donors who can pool their resources in order to carry a bigger political stick.

Not only are individuals presently held to lower amounts which they can contribute directly to candidates than the limits for groups of donors (through political parties and PACs), but individual donors have been encouraged for decades to join with others in collective political action by being able to contribute substantially more to political parties and PACs than directly to candidates.

In turn, the law has allowed PACs to give five times as much to candidates as one individual can contribute to that candidate, and donors can give up to five times more to a PAC than he or she can donate to a candidate.

This year's version of "reform" has departed from that philosophy.

Under the new limits, individuals will be able to give almost as much directly to a candidate as that donor can give to a PAC: $4,000 to a candidate, $5,000 to a PAC. And, while the PAC limits remain the same, individual contribution limits are doubled. Thus, the relative influence of hundreds or thousands of people giving small contributions to a PAC (or a party) in order that the group can outweigh or at least compete with wealthy individuals is dramatically reduced.

Not only do the changes in the candidate contribution limits favor wealthy individual donors, the draconian new restrictions on citizen advocacy favor America's wealthiest activists. The voices of the rich are magnified at the direct expense of everyday Americans who join organizations they believe in for the very purpose of letting those groups speak on their behalf. The "electioneering communications" provisions of the reforms allow one wealthy person to spend as much as he or she wants, any time he or she wants to spend it, saying whatever he or she wants to say. Some reform.

Take Monster.com founder Andrew McKelvey, who loves John McCain and opposes the National Rifle Association. Mr. McKelvey started a new organization with $12 million of his money to fight the NRA. (On starting his own gun-control organization, he said: "I'd always been in business on my own and so I decided rather than join another organization I could start one.")

Under the McCain "reform" bill, Mr. McKelvey can spend millions of dollars running television ads attacking members of Congress who support legislation favored by the NRA any time he wants. He can do it on his own (he has sufficient resources to do so) or he can do it in conjunction with his organization as long as the money comes from Mr. McKelvey's own very deep pockets.

The NRA, on the other hand, is prohibited under Mr. McCain's bill from responding to such McKelvey expenditures with its organization's funds money paid to the NRA voluntarily by millions of members, not one rich guy.

The NRA's "option" is to create a separate account for the purpose of paying for such advertising and to solicit funds separately for such an account. None of the contributions to the account can be drawn on a corporate bank account so Sam Smith, NRA member, who owns Sam's Fishing and Hunting Store, Inc. can't contribute to the fund with a check in any amount drawn on his store account. That would be an "evil corporate contribution," the likes of which the reformers say we must be rid of. The reform bills are intended to minimize or eliminate political involvement by business down to the very smallest ones.

Only individuals are allowed to engage in political speech via television or radio broadcasts. What we think of as free speech isn't cheap. Only rich political activists like Mr. McKelvey or billionaires like Bill Gates who can buy television networks can be assured of having unfettered free speech rights under the new law.

It is indeed a curious system of reforms that elevates wealthy donors like those who were writing checks in the 1970s under the guise of "getting money out of the system."


Cleta Mitchell is an attorney in the Washington office of Foley and Lardner, specializing in campaign-finance and election law.


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