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Perpetuating cynicism, protecting incumbents

By Charles Bloomer
web posted February 18, 2002

Ever wonder why less that half of eligible American voters show up at the polls? The recent campaign finance reform sham illustrates one reason the American public has lost faith and respect for politicians.

Campaign finance reform languished in the House of Representatives after being passed by the Senate last spring. The Republican controlled House was reluctant to pass the initiative because of its dubious constitutionality and the crippling effect it would have on political speech. But the recent Enron collapse and Enron campaign contributions to politicians gave reform supporters an opportunity to hyperventilate about an urgent need to revamp a supposedly corrupt system of campaign finance.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. addresses a Capitol Hill news conference as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Mo., left, and others, look on, February 14 to discuss campaign finance reform
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. addresses a Capitol Hill news conference as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Mo., left, and others, look on, February 14 to discuss campaign finance reform

Using the Enron bankruptcy to push campaign finance reform is a canard. If, in fact, the current system is so corrupt, how do we account for the fact that, despite having given millions to politicians of both parties, Enron executives could not generate enough political support to keep from going under? Where is the corruption? It certainly is not in Enron's relationship with the Bush administration, nor is the corruption evident in Enron's relationship with members of congress. To put it simply, Enron pumped millions of dollars in the political system and, when push came to shove, they got nothing in return - at least not enough to keep them from failing in their shaky business ventures.

Why, then, did campaign finance reform suddenly take on all the characteristics of a legislative crisis? Why was it necessary to make a mountain out of a molehill and then blast it with a daisy cutter?

The Shays/Meehan/McCain/Feingold brand of campaign finance reform has less to do with eliminating corruption in politics and more to do with incumbent protection. In addition to an unworkable maze of contribution regulations, the reform passed by congress unconstitutionally prohibits political free speech by imposing an "electioneering blackout" that would ban using the name of a federal candidate for 30 days prior to a primary election and 60 days prior to a general election. In fact, this bill makes it illegal for anyone, other than candidates and the media, to criticize pending legislation by name or report on candidates' voting records during the blackout period. This provision puts a definite chill on interested individuals and third party advocacy groups and their ability to express opinions in the period immediately before an election - the very time when their information would have the most impact.

With criticism stifled, incumbents would be free to introduce legislation to raise their political profiles and, therefore, their chances for re-election. Again, to put it simply: Politicians in office would have the right to free political speech; their critics would not.

Federal Election Commission Chairman David Mason says that provisions of the Shays/Meehan campaign finance reform are "so complex, so vague, or so broad as to be unworkable, or unenforceable". In a speech to the Heritage Foundation, Mason said, "Some provisions of Shays/Meehan - the 30/60 day electioneering blackout, for instance - are flatly unconstitutional, and other provisions raise significant constitutional difficulties".

Other critics of the bill charge that it will drive most individuals and small issues groups out of the political process because it makes advocacy too complicated and too expensive. Groups with lots of money or rich individuals would still be able to hire lawyers to navigate the labyrinthine regulations and exploit the loopholes. So much for the goal of getting "big money" out of politics.

Congress' rush to stifle free speech has done nothing to enhance its credibility with the public. While some polls show that the public supports the concept of campaign finance reform, the same could be said for the public's support of three square meals a day. Basing the crisis in campaign financing on the unrelated issue of the Enron business failure indicates that congress is convinced that the American people are too stupid and too dense to see through their elitist, incumbent-protecting tactics. This arrogant attitude is the root cause of the cynicism of the American voter. The half of eligible voters that do not vote are convinced that politicians, no matter the party affiliation, are not nearly as concerned with the good of the public as they are with maintaining the power and perks that come with elected office.

Shays/Meehan/McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform will not restore faith in the political system, as supporters claim. Rather, it will feed the cynical attitude among voters that the system is broken and unlikely to be fixed by those currently in office.

The first amendment of the US Constitution says, in part: "Congress shall pass no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...." Which part of "shall pass no law" does Congress not understand?

Charles Bloomer is a Senior Writer for Enter Stage Right. He can be contacted at clbloomer@enterstageright.com. (c) 2002 Charles Bloomer

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