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FOR A DOOLITTLE CONGRESS

12:00 AM, Jul 28, 1997 • By MAJOR GARRETT
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FOR MANY YEARS, CONSERVATIVES have hesitated to denounce the assaults on the First Amendment that go under the name of "campaignfinance reform." At the same time, they have not offered the public an adequate alternative to the Left's repeated attempts to limit political speech. Now they have their chance.


Rep. John Doolittle, Republican of California, has proposed legislation that would end all limits on political contributions and require swift electronic disclosure of all money raised by candidates for federal office. (Donations from foreign sources would remain illegal.) Doolittle would scrap the existing system of contribution limits, filing requirements, and obtuse distinctions between "soft money" and "hard money." And the Federal Election Commission -- instead of monitoring Byzantine rules that politicians routinely flout and meting out puny penalties years after the fact -- would actually do something useful: supply voters with information about the flow of money to their representative and senators before they cast their votes.


"For too long," Doolittle says, "the debate on campaign-finance reform has been between the far Left and the Left. I don't want to participate in a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. This is the first truly conservative approach to campaignfinance reform." Fifty-four lawmakers have cosponsored Doolittle's bill, among them GOP leaders Tom DeLay, Bill Paxon, and Gerald Solomon. But the bill has received zero media attention.


Most reporters remain infatuated with the monstrous McCain-Feingold bill, which would impose "voluntary" spending limits, eliminate soft-money contributions to political parties, require free TV and radio time for campaign spots, and provide free campaign mailers. All you need to know about this silly bill is that candidates who did not submit to its "voluntary" spending limits would have to include a disclaimer to that effect on all campaign commercials and mail (like the surgeon general's warning). In other words, if a candidate decided to spend more money on a campaign than McCain- Feingold deemed appropriate, he would be required to affix a political scarlet letter to every commercial he made and every piece of mail he sent out.


The president has chosen McCain-Feingold as his legislative fig leaf, but not many others have. Yet the bill has nevertheless enjoyed the kind of slavering media coverage typically reserved for proposals to raise the minimum wage or to nationalize health care. And with congressional hearings into last year's campaignfinance shenanigans now underway, calls have again risen for "reform" along the McCain-Feingold model. At a minimum, lawmakers might seek an easy way out by calling for a ban on soft-money contributions and forcing broadcasters to provide free air time for political commercials. (The FEC created soft money to help political parties maintain their viability in an age when candidates increasingly operated as autonomous political corporations.)


Sen. Mitch McConnell -- a Kentucky Republican who is a veteran of the campaign-finance wars and opposes all new regulations -- fears that a majority of senators might back a ban on soft money just to appear to have " done something." "It's premature to say we have dodged a bullet," McConnell says. "McCain-Feingold is not going to become law this year, but the 'reformers' are going to make a run at us sometime this year." So what will the alternative be?


Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, a group that will soon propose legislation to require taxpayer funding for federal campaigns, believes that McCain-Feingold has no political future and that it's time for a national debate on taxpayerfinanced campaigns. A simple ban on soft money would be insufficient, she says.


Conservatives should relish such a debate, especially when they can point to the Doolittle bill as the wiser approach. McConnell says that public financing of federal campaigns "doesn't have a snowball's chance" of passing. Neither, he would hasten to add, does the Doolittle bill. At least not now.


That may be because so few voters know about it. Doolittle imagines a world where data on campaign contributions are posted regularly on the Internet, where software companies sell programs that allow people to discern patterns in political giving, and where campaigns use juicy details about donations to their opponents in direct-mail flyers.