If wolves wish to masquerade as sheep, they should at least don the proper attire. Simply barking “We’re sheep” and then lunging for their prey’s jugular hardly counts as much of a ruse. But that’s just what campaign finance “reformers” in Congress did last week when they bared their teeth and passed a bill that nakedly protects the interests of incumbents (not to mention Democrats) — even going so far as to give themselves an extra two years to prepare for its implementation and build up their war chests.
If you have any doubt about the congressmen’s motivations, even after listening to their stirring rhetoric about cleaning up the political system, ask yourself a simple question: Would anyone in Congress vote for a bill making it harder to get reelected? And if you believe that such a virtuous soul exists, ask yourself: Are there 240 such angels in our legislature’s lower body?
If your answer to both of these questions is yes, bless you — you must sleep quite soundly at night. Granted, you also probably lose a lot of money on crooked ring-toss games, but that’s neither here nor there.
There are those more astute citizens, however, who harbor no such illusions about our elected representatives. In fact, a hardy band of such skeptics founded our country and wrote our Constitution back in 1787. These men understood, above all else, human nature as it relates to power and politics. They understood that power corrupts; they understood that men seldom act against their own material interests; and they understood that the only way to restrain the unlimited ambitions of men is to disperse political power and set it against itself.
Never would these men have given elected representatives undue power over the manner of their own re-election; they understood perfectly well that you don’t let the fox guard the henhouse or the wolf tend the sheep. In fact, the issue came up, though in a quite different form than at present, at the convention in Philadelphia during that long, hot summer when our Constitution was forged.
The question arose as to who would be responsible for setting the manner and time of elections to Congress. Some were concerned that giving that power to Congress itself was a dangerous idea — Congress could choose irregular dates and times in order to attempt to thwart the will of the people. Ultimately, it was decided that the states should primarily hold this power (though Congress was given the power to override the states if they were delinquent).
This is all a far cry from giving Congress the power to silence opponents for two months before an election.
For the founders, questions of process were part and parcel of what constituted a virtuous government. Today’s congressional campaign reformers also understand the importance of process. Unfortunately, they have turned that understanding toward how they can bend the process to serve their own vested and partisan interests.
A look at the provisions of Shays-Meehan makes its intentions quite plain — those canine teeth are showing. First of all, the ban on soft money is a sweetheart deal for those already in Congress. That’s because hard money, on which candidates would be far more reliant under the bill, vastly favors incumbents, who have more time and better-established political machines to undertake the labor-intensive process of raising smaller contributions from thousands of donors.
Furthermore, there’s a reason that 198 Democrats supported this bill as opposed to 41 Republicans; many of whom, by the way, voted for it because they didn’t want to take the hit of “being against reform” once passage appeared inevitable (there’s a place in hell for these weasels). That reason is the Republicans’ clear advantage in raising soft money. Last year Republicans raised $102.9 million in soft money versus $74.1 million raised by Democrats.
The ban on “issue ads” that “refer” to candidates in the 60 days before an election is also a blessing to incumbents. Nothing is quite so galling to a congressman or senator up for re-election than “special interest” groups calling attention to their positions on controversial issues that they have spent the last two or six years trying desperately to dodge.
Of course these ads can be run against anyone, but they tend to be focused on officials already in office with established records to attack (and most likely votes that have ticked off the people doing the attacking). Now, there may be some in Congress who voted for these blatantly unconstitutional provisions figuring “let the Supreme Court sort it out” (again, there’s a special place in hell), but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like the sort of protection from criticism for which they voted.
And as with the soft money ban, the issue ad ban suspiciously enough seems to have some particular benefits for Democrats. Issue ads, on the whole, tend to favor Republicans, if only because conservative-leaning groups tend to be better organized when it comes to going after candidates that particularly irk them (how many rural Democrats have been caught in the NRA’s crosshairs?). A subtler, and perhaps more devious, benefit Democrats would reap with an issue ad ban would be that they could take advantage of the benefits of their relationship with labor unions (get out the vote drives, etc.) while quieting them on environmental issues where they disagree, such as oil drilling in Alaska.
Having been passed by the House, Shays-Meehan now has to be either accepted in toto by the Senate (a process usually reserved for emergency legislation, but McCain’s chosen tactic to quash dissent), or amended by the Senate, sending it to a conference committee where it will die. With President Bush looking likely to sign the legislation if it gets to his desk — and why shouldn’t he when he’s the reigning champion at raising hard money? Oh yeah, the Constitution! — Sen. Mitch McConnell may be the last line of defense between the McCainiacs and free speech. On the air Sunday, Sen. McConnell said he thought he had the 41 votes necessary to maintain a filibuster.
If Sen. McConnell fails, however, President Bush will face the toughest domestic political test of his presidency yet. Campaign finance reform has dogged Bush ever since John McCain’s early surge in the Republican primary. But the president should take a lesson from that early surge. There’s a reason he, and not Sen. McCain, sits in the White House: No one but editorialists and public interest bloviators gives a fundraiser about campaign finance reform. Showboating politicians like Rep. Chris Shays may be able to use the issue to get puff pieces written about them in the “Washington Post” (headline: “Chris Shays, The GOP’s Reluctant Rebel”), but it consistently comes in last in polls that ask Americans to rank the issues they care about.
It might be the easy thing to do for Bush to sign off on this legislation, but he took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Every congressman who voted for this bill took the same oath — and each should be tossed yelping and howling into the Potomac for violating it so mendaciously last week. But Bush is the president, and if he punts here, he doesn’t deserve the support of any American who is serious about the principles upon which our democratic republic is founded.
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