The Magazine

The GOP and Campaign Finance

The Democrats are vulnerable, but Republicans are timid. Can't they do more than just say no to reform?

Jan 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 17 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Campaign finance reform is one of the issues that the Democrats will seek to capitalize on in 2000, targeting Republicans for resisting any change. It's very much like the tax issue. If the Republicans don't have an alternative to present, they play into the Democrats' hands.

Making the Republicans' timidity on this issue worse, the Democrats, in the era of the Clinton-Gore abuses, are drenched in hypocrisy -- witness Mrs. Clinton's record-breaking accumulation of soft money. Yet it's hard for Republicans to condemn this hypocrisy when they are immobilized on campaign finance reform -- saying nothing, doing nothing, trying their best to block every proposal for change.

The Republicans need to emerge from their total opposition to any serious reform, because the signs are that they will suffer for it. They fought a losing battle in the House in 1998, while managing to stop action in the Senate, but it isn't clear they can continue to block all action -- let alone win the political contest. So instead of fighting, they would be better off devising a workable plan of their own. Being anti-everything cannot help the Republican cause.

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In the campaign finance fights after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the Democrats vigorously pressed to limit all kinds of campaign contributions -- except those from organized labor, which, of course, is very good for them. (This followed little or no interest in campaign finance reform by Democratic leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, when they controlled Congress.) The Republicans, after some tossing and turning to find a rationale for the existing system, which they saw as giving them an advantage, seized on the First Amendment with this argument: Contributing money to a political campaign is a form of speech, and it is unconstitutional to limit free speech. The Supreme Court endorsed this view in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), and it remains the law of the land.

Court rulings and constitutional arguments notwithstanding, my sense is that people are appalled by the state of campaign finance in America today. Is this an issue that disturbs them night after night, day after day? Certainly not. But you have a situation where the Republicans, who put themselves forward as a reform party in 1994, look less and less like a reform party by stonewalling on this issue.

If the Republicans are truly going to change things -- bringing us less government, less spending, less regulation -- they had better have clean hands. They cannot be seen as the lackeys of the special interests that will benefit from these changes. And to have clean hands, they have to propose a meaningful reform of the way we finance campaigns.

The system now in place, which was created by the 1974 campaign reforms in reaction to Watergate, is a classic case of unintended consequences. The 1974 law spawned political action committees (PACs), which became another means to increase the influence of special interests in federal elections. And the law's rigid, non-indexed $ 1,000 limit on contributions has made it difficult to finance a campaign. A $ 1,000 contribution today is worth less than one-third of what $ 1,000 was worth 25 years ago -- not only because of inflation, but also because television is a much more important part of the equation than it was back then.

If it were up to me, I'd remove the limits altogether. But that won't happen. Meantime, the loopholes in the current system for so-called soft money have created tremendous slush funds of special-interest cash. Soft money can be given in unlimited sums, so long as it is not spent on a particular candidate's campaign. This has ushered in abuses common in both parties but spectacularly illustrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for senator from New York. A joint committee set up by Mrs. Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee simultaneously solicits capped donations to her campaign and unlimited soft-money donations to be spent on her behalf. This arrangement allows corporations to make otherwise illegal contributions, and wealthy donors to contribute far more than the legal limit for direct gifts to a candidate. While the cap on individual donations is $ 1,000 for the primary and $ 1,000 for the general election, contributions to this "New York Senate 2000" committee are often in the tens of thousands of dollars, and many come from places like Texas, California, and Mrs. Clinton's native Chicago.