Soft Money, Odd Thinking

Rep. Richard Gephardt set a winter indoor record for audacious arguing when he wrung this lesson from the Enron debacle: "The real scandal here may not be what the administration did to help Enron, but what it avoided doing because it was concerned that the campaign contributions created the appearance of conflict." Political people are adroit at arguing that anything and everything that happens, or does not happen, demonstrates the wisdom of whatever they want. Many in the media, too, want stricter campaign-finance laws, meaning tighter government regulation of political communication by everyone except the media. Media coverage of Enron relentlessly stresses how many legislators received campaign contributions from "Enron." Small wonder people think the corporation itself gave vast sums to candidates. But the total of the corporation's contributions to candidates was: 0. Corporate contributions to federal candidates have been illegal since 1907.

Enron executives and employees, as individuals and through their political-action committee, did contribute to candidates. However, individuals are limited to giving $1,000 per candidate per election and $5,000 to a PAC, and a total of $25,000 per calendar year. The Washington Post, which thinks the McCain-Feingold reform bill is necessary to make America a land fit for heroes, is scandalized by this fact: "Of the 248 members who sit on committees that plan to hold hearings on the scandal, an extraordinary 212 received money from Andersen or Enron."

But if McCain-Feingold had become law when first proposed seven years ago, it would have had no bearing on any contribution from Enron's executives or its PAC to any legislator. All those contributions were "hard" dollars--to particular candidates. McCain-Feingold regulates only "soft" dollars, which cannot go to candidates. Such dollars go to parties, which can use them only for "party-building" --voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives, issue advertising--and not for advocating the election of particular candidates.

However, if the version of McCain-Feingold that passed the Senate last spring becomes law, it will change what corporate executives can give to candidates: they will be able to give more. The bill doubles the amount individuals can give to candidates, from $1,000 to $2,000.

Confused? There is a lot of confusion going around.

Last April a senator who supports McCain-Feingold--for the moment, we shall call him Senator X--attended a $1,000-per-person fund-raising event at the Washington home of Sen. Hillary Clinton. The event's purpose was to raise money to help a Democratic freshman, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, retire her large campaign debt. During her 2000 campaign Cantwell, vowing to spend "whatever it takes" to win, poured millions of dollars of her personal wealth into her campaign--as a loan. And she borrowed additional millions, which she lent to her campaign. The event at Clinton's house raised money for Cantwell's campaign to repay to Cantwell loans it received from her. This is not unusual.

But why would a supporter of McCain-Feingold participate in this? The version of that bill that the Senate passed less than a month before the event for Cantwell radiates disapproval of such events. It does so by strictly limiting--to $250,000--the amount of loans by a candidate to his or her campaign that the campaign can repay to the candidate. By the way, Cantwell, like Senator X, ardently supports McCain-Feingold.

A National Public Radio reporter at the fund-raiser interviewed Senator X, who had paid the requisite $1,000. Senator X explained to NPR why Cantwell's borrowing was a virtuous alternative to accepting large corporate and union contributions: "What she did in the campaign was courageous. She decided not to take soft money."

More confusion. Candidates never receive soft money, the definition of which is money for parties, not candidates. Again, corporate and union contributions to candidates are illegal. Senator X was praising Cantwell because she "decided" not to take contributions that would violate a 95-year-old law.

Perhaps Senator X meant that Cantwell's borrowing was better than accepting the assistance of issue ads paid for by Democratic Party soft money. But why is such money more unsavory than other assistance Cantwell happily accepted--large sums of unregulated money spent on her behalf by outside groups? That spending included, among many other sums, $265,860 by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Inc., $12,888 by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Inc., and $11,267 by the League of Conservation Voters, Inc.

Who was Senator X? Wisconsin's Russell Feingold of McCain-Feingold fame.

The event for Cantwell took place while the Senate was in session. Nothing unusual about that. Legislators raise lots of hard dollars while in Washington. If President Bush wants to derail McCain-Feingold--and if he does not, he does not understand its assault on the Constitution--he can do so by saying: "I will veto reform legislation that does not contain a provision of the sort found in the laws of Texas and some other states, a provision saying that no member of the legislature can solicit or receive campaign contributions while the legislature is in session." That would kill the bill.

So would this rule: No member of the House or Senate can vote on a campaign-finance bill unless the member passes a test proving that he or she understands existing law and how the bill would change it.

It would be nice if no member could vote to restrict political giving and spending unless the member could refute this point made by the Supreme Court: To say that a person's First Amendment right to unlimited political expression is not abridged by limits on the money necessary for political communication is like saying a person's right to travel would not be abridged by a law restricting the amount a person can spend on gasoline or plane tickets.