The Short, Unhappy Life of Campaign Finance Reform

By Taylor, Paul | Mother Jones, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Short, Unhappy Life of Campaign Finance Reform


Taylor, Paul, Mother Jones


Power Plays | Politics

Everyone seems ready to bury the McCain-Feingold law-- including those responsible for enforcing it. By Paul Taylor

Everyone seems ready to bury the McCain-Feingold law-- including those responsible for enforcing it.

SENATORS JOHN MCCAIN AND RUSSELL FEINGOLD needed all of seven years to nurse their campaign finance reform bill through a reluctant Congress. The bill's opponents needed all of three hours to start strangling it.

The McCain-Feingold law, which seeks to outlaw large political donations, is nearly a year old now and still gasping for each breath it Draws it's under pitiless assault from every corner of the political universe-unions, corporations, right-to-lifers, civil libertarians, gun owners, broadcasters, Christians, fat cats, purists who think it doesn't go far enough, Democrats, Republicans, Congress, the White House, and even the regulators who are supposed to enforce it. Its fate is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which will rule this summer on a raft of constitutional challenges. But no matter what the court decides, the resistance mounted by the armies of the status quo has already made for a sobering spectacle-full of naked hypocrisies, petty vanities, low politics, high farce, and, yes, a vexingly difficult clash of core values in a democracy. It has also provided a useful reminder about the pitfalls of reform. Somewhere, surely, Lord Macaulay is grinning in his grave.

This is the saga of the long, hard "morning after" for McCain-Feingold. It begins on March 27, 2002, the day the bill was signed into law. The measure outlaws the half-billion dollars of unlimited checks-- so-called soft money-that flood the coffers of the political parties each election cycle. (Contributions that go directly to individual candidates have been limited by law since Watergate.) As keeper of the world's thickest Rolodex of political donors, President Bush has little use for a ban on soft money, and even less for McCain, his tenacious rival for the GOP presidential nomination. In different circumstances, the president might well have vetoed McCain's bill. But in the spring of 2002 the Enron scandal was raging, and the $312,500 that the president's pal "Kenny Boy" Lay and other top Enron executives had given to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas had become a political embarrassment. It wasn't the best time for the White House to derail the most important campaign finance reform legislation Congress had passed in a generation. Besides, there were so many other willing executioners.

So Bush bit his lip, dispensed with the usual Rose Garden ceremony, and put his signature on the bill early that morning in the privacy of his office. McCain and Feingold only learned of the signing afterward. The one politician Bush's staff did tip off was Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the self-styled Darth Vader of campaign finance reform. A pompous man even by the lofty standards of the U.S. Senate, McConnell immediately rushed into court to secure the "naming rights" to a lawsuit that he hopes will become both a landmark constitutional case and his own great political legacy.

McConnell v. Federal Election Commission is a consolidated case with 84 plaintiffs, running the gamut from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, from the California Democratic Party to the Republican National Committee, from the Christian Coalition to the ACLU. All contend that in one way or another, the bill infringes on their rights to free speech and association. The plaintiffs certainly make for strange bedfellows, but the grander irony of this lawsuit is the identity of the defendant-the Federal Election Commission. That's the agency charged with enforcing the law. It's also the agency that has spent the past year sabotaging it. Most egregiously, the FEC adopted a regulation that allows the Democratic and Republican parties to create new shell organizations that can continue to collect the unlimited soft money that the bill sets out to ban. …

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