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‘Reform’ Doesn’t Begin to Describe McCain-Feingold

“Campaign finance reform.” It sounds so wholesome and all-American. To most people, the phrase evokes an image of fair, open elections that are free of special interests, once again in the hands of average Americans.

Despite the support it engendered among “good government” groups and the nation’s editorial pages, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act will produce just the opposite of what its proponents described to the nation. Unless the Supreme Court strikes it down, the law will produce elections that are dominated more than ever by special interests — and the financing will be murky indeed.

More than that, the much-trumpeted law kneecaps our political parties, putting the vital role of recruiting and financing candidates in the hands of powerful but narrowly focused groups on the left and the right. That, in turn, will make consensus building on legislation increasingly difficult in an already polarized Congress.

The best way to explain the harm that campaign finance reform will inflict is to look back on 2002 under the old system, and then look ahead to 2004 under the new rules. Here’s my bird’s-eye view:

At the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where I served during the 2002 cycle as communications director under then-Chairman Bill Frist (Tenn.), we cared about only one thing: electing Republicans. We did not focus so much on our candidates’ ideology, only their electability.

Traditionally, recruitment has been a basic function of a political party. Recruit the best people and, more often than not, you win. In 2002, we recruited great candidates, many of whom are Senators today. We worked as partners with them and, because we were not ideologically bound to any particular viewpoint, candidates knew they had the freedom to voice their own opinions. That is, our support was not contingent upon their stance on any single issue.

We worked with the candidates to raise and spend hard money, all reported on public forms. We worked with the candidates, the Republican National Committee, and state parties on voter-identification and get-out-the-vote efforts — also basic functions of parties. If you were a Republican on the ballot, we worked our hearts out to get people to the polls to vote for you.

The NRSC also raised soft money to finance issue ads in various states. We reported it all: who gave us the money, how much, how we spent it and when. The reformers didn’t always like what they saw, but at least they could see it.

If campaign finance “reform” governs the 2004 elections and, even more so, subsequent elections, the “reformers” will have become the great enablers of those narrow special interests they claim to abhor. They will have shifted the basic functions of recruitment and fundraising away from the parties to groups that have no obligation to report their finances. They will have turned an open system into one with all the clarity of a mud pit.

Money matters. It always has and always will. Potential candidates want to know where their financial support will come from, what their infrastructure will be, and how that infrastructure will help identify and turn out voters.

Under campaign finance reform, if you run for a federal office in 2004 and the state party is using any soft dollars on GOTV efforts (which many states allow under their own campaign finance laws), your party will be unable to reference you in those efforts. In fact, the party won’t be able to say “vote Republican” or “vote Democrat” if there’s a federal candidate on the ballot. State parties will have to raise and spend hard dollars for generic GOTV. It would not be surprising to see state legislatures move their nonfederal elections to off years to avoid the “reformers’” attempt to neuter the parties in favor of narrow interests.

The Republican and Democratic parties won’t be able to use nonfederal dollars on GOTV, but NARAL-Pro-Choice America, the National Rifle Association and the AFL-CIO will be able to — along with any of the new independent fundraising committees that political operatives are creating to evade soft-money regulations. The parties will no longer be able to run issue ads, but these other entities will be.

NARAL and the NRA will also have the resources to recruit candidates, making those candidates (and subsequent officeholders) beholden … to whom? But unlike the parties in 2002, these groups will face no requirement to report how much they raise and how they spend it.

Thus, more and more candidates will represent the agendas of narrow special interests, making consensus between Republicans and Democrats on how to govern even more elusive. At the same time, the public will have less capacity to see just whom these candidates are beholden to.

Anyone who calls this “reform” has one heck of a wacky world view.

Ginny Wolfe, former counselor to Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is senior vice president for public affairs at Manning Selvage & Lee, a public relations firm.

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