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So Much for Reform: House’s ‘527’ Bill Is a Turkey

Let me get straight to the point: The campaign finance bill reported out of the House Administration Committee, with the laughable title, “527 Fairness Act,” is a sham. An embarrassment. A turkey. [IMGCAP(1)]

The normal punch line that would follow that assessment is: “Other than that, it’s all right.” But I can’t even say that. It has no redeeming social value and is simply a bald attempt to erase not just the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act enacted before the last election, but also the core elements of the 1974 campaign reform bill that were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976.

BCRA was one of Congress’ few real policy successes of the past five years. Not only did it pass through both houses despite the strenuous efforts of Republican leaders in both bodies to kill it, but it also passed muster at the Supreme Court despite predictions by nearly everyone in the chattering class that it would be struck down. And it worked, despite the misgivings and predictions of prominent independent critics.

On the latter point, Washington Post columnist David Broder was among those who acknowledged in print that he had been wrong: BCRA had, in fact, strengthened parties at the grass roots, motivating them to put more resources into party-building and get-out-the-vote activities and acting far less as a money launderer channeling soft money into television ads that usually did not even mention a party.

Indeed, during the last election cycle, the parties managed to raise more hard money than they had raised hard and soft combined during the pre-BCRA era — without the embarrassing shakedown schemes that had come to dominate fundraising by major policy figures.

The Democratic Party had particularly striking success under BCRA, contrary to the expectations of most observers, not to mention all the Democratic consultants who had made millions from the old soft-money regime.

For now, without the benefit of a close and intense presidential contest, Democrats’ natural disadvantage at raising money at both high and low levels is showing again. Still, there are signs of Democrats moving up in the fundraising totals, and I will bet that Democrats eventually will hold their own with Republicans in the 2006 midterms. I also believe that, once again, both parties will raise more in hard money than they’d raised in hard and soft combined during the previous comparable cycle.

So why change the system? A partial answer is that some people wear such rigid ideological blinders that they won’t admit that any part of reform worked. Another part is that some Republicans believe that if they move to essentially unlimited hard-money fundraising — more than a million dollars by anyone to a candidate, plus no aggregate limit on an individual’s contributions to candidates and parties and a green light for leaders to solicit funds and give huge amounts to candidates — they can expand their edge over Democrats. And a part of it is that some Members, along with the consultants and pollsters who have enriched Cartier and BMW with the money they pulled in under the old rules, want to return to the political equivalent of the Wild West.

Lord knows we have real problems in elections and campaign finance. There is a problem with 527 groups, but it’s a one that has a simple solution: Treat all political committees (those groups that have as their primary purpose electing and defeating candidates for office) alike under the same set of rules.

There is a bigger problem with the presidential campaign funding system, which has not been reformed since 1976. Because of its unrealistic caps on spending in primary states and overall in the primary season for candidates who opt into its matching fund system, it is essentially unworkable and irrelevant for 2008, giving huge advantages to multimillionaires and ideological activists who run for a major party presidential nomination. Because of its antiquated funding system — the check-off box on tax returns to create the dollar amounts that go into its funding purse is inadequate and misleading as well — the matching fund balance could be put into jeopardy, leaving a bankrupt system early in the next presidential cycle.

And the passage of the Help America Vote Act notwithstanding, we have serious problems with election administration. Several prestigious groups are working on a variety of election reform proposals; they deserve attention and action soon.

These are the areas where Congress should be focusing its efforts. The House Administration Committee, under Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), acted in a commendably bipartisan fashion to get HAVA enacted in the first place. Now Ney has decided to avoid any efforts to examine its implementation or to look at the real, continuing needs in elections. Nothing has been done to address the presidential funding system. Instead, we get a horrible campaign finance bill reported out on a party-line vote from the House Administration Committee.

If the Republicans who voted for BCRA show any signs of consistency — or take even five minutes to study this turkey — it will go down to defeat, as it should. And when it does, Ney should go back to the kind of behavior he originally showed on election reform with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and in hearings on continuity of government with Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). The result can be good, constructive and genuinely bipartisan legislation.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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