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Rolling Back the Clock on Campaign Reform

Fred Wertheimer: Meet your nemesis.

An upstart group led by a former Federal Election Commission chairman is trying to overturn a generation of campaign finance regulations, relying heavily on the reform community’s playbook and digging in for a protracted fight over money in politics.

“Our goal is to undo 30 years of Fred Wertheimer,” said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former GOP-nominated FEC commissioner. “One of the things I’ve told our supporters all along is that we have to be in this for the long haul — you don’t undo this overnight.”

Since the Watergate scandal exposed large-scale campaign fundraising corruption at the highest levels of the federal government, advocating for the reform of the country’s campaign finance laws has become big business in Washington, D.C., employing perhaps hundreds at compliance-based law firms and groups like Wertheimer’s Democracy 21, Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause.

Large family foundations, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, have doled out millions of dollars to pay for studies and grass-roots lobbying campaigns to push increased regulation. And for candidates and political committees, hiring an election law lawyer is no longer an option.

That frustrates Smith.

So, two years ago, he decided he’d had enough. While still on the commission, he was approached by unnamed donors who wanted guidance about starting a counterpoint to Wertheimer and others, who were still basking in the glory of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The then-new McCain-Feingold laws, as the act was commonly called, largely abolished soft-money contributions.

The new ban on these big-dollar donations, usually made by unions and business groups, was seen as a huge victory for the reform community.

But critics of the new laws, such as Smith and his new patrons, saw the bill’s passage — as well as most regulations going back to 1907 — as a curb on constitutional rights.

After leaving the FEC in late 2005, Smith became the public face of his new group; grown tired of Washington, D.C., he also resumed his teaching post at the Ohio-based Capital University Law School.

And while Smith has no day-to-day responsibilities, he chairs the upstart’s board and lends his sometimes-controversial reputation and fundraising abilities through his extensive Republican contacts.

Smith’s game plan is to “reverse engineer” the strategy taken by the reform community going back decades: fund scholarly research, file legal briefs and testify before Congress and state legislatures. But unlike Wertheimer, Smith focuses on the myths of how money corrupts politics.

“My goal is to change how Americans think about campaign finance,” Smith said. “There’s been no place for people, lawmakers to go to get information other than the standard Common Cause line.”

One of group’s first tasks, Smith continued, is transforming volumes of academic research into bite-sized talking points. He said many studies reinforce his claims that the tightening of campaign finance regulations since the mid-1970s has chilled the democratic process.

For example, Smith said studies suggest individual donation limits may hurt voter turnout, while others show the relationship between current fundraising limits and the usually uncompetitive nature of nearly all House seats.

“Serious work by political scientists, economists, in academic journals is really quite favorable to deregulation,” he said. “This stuff gets buried in obscure academic journals, but all Members of Congress see are the ideological studies done by the reform groups.”

Similar to reformers, the group periodically files friend-of-the-court briefs, including the recent Supreme Court case involving Wisconsin Right to Life, which carved out an exemption for issue ads around Election Day and was seen as a loss by reform groups.

In the wake of the high court’s decision, Smith was quick to rub it in.

“[The] Supreme Court decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life is cause for a little celebration,” Smith blogged on the conservative Web site “It does not even mean the death of McCain-Feingold’s hated ban on most independent broadcast ads that merely mention a candidate by name with 30 days of a primary of 60 days of a general election. But it does open a significant exemption to that ban. The reformers are freaking out, frankly.”

From his new helm, Smith, too, can continue his professional rivalry with Wertheimer, who is widely considered the Moses of the campaign finance reform movement. While at the commission, Smith was criticized frequently by the reform community for his contempt of the law as they interpreted it.

“[Wertheimer] thinks he ought to appoint the commissioners,” Smith said. “What [reformers] want is an FEC that does what they want.”

Wertheimer declined to comment for Roll Call’s story, but J. Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center said Smith’s distaste for election regulation is long documented. Hebert also called Smith an “extremist” and doubts anyone is listening to his pleas.

“When Brad Smith was an FEC commissioner and chairman, he used every opportunity to undermine the law rather than enforce it,” Hebert said. “He made it very clear when he was on the commission that he wasn’t going to enforce the law because he didn’t agree with it.”

“He’s annoying, like mosquitoes are annoying,” Hebert added. “Most people don’t take him seriously.”

Former FEC general counsel Larry Noble disagreed with Smith that the reform community has been given a “free ride” for the past 30-plus years. He said the American Civil Liberties Union and business groups have consistently come out against more campaign finance regulation. But by creating a one-stop clearinghouse for research, legal assistance and rhetorical bomb-throwing, Smith and his organization have found a niche.

“It’s not going to be difficult to get their voice heard,” Noble said. “Brad Smith is a recognized voice in the field … and he’s adding a distinct voice.”

One issue Noble does take the new group to task for is not disclosing its own donors, who Smith said prefer to remain anonymous. Noble, the former executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said Smith’s stance is a 180-degree shift from earlier criticisms of the reform community.

“One of the arguments that he would often make was about the funding of the reform groups and the sources of their funding,” Noble said. “You’d think if you wanted to get into that debate, that you’d release your funding [sources].”

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