Virtue At Last! (In November)

Presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, pioneering new frontiers of fatuity, says some parts of the Shays-Meehan campaign-finance bill please his boss and others do not. "But ultimately the process is moving forward, and the president is pleased." Ultimately, in Washington, the celebration of "process" signals the abandonment of principle.

President Bush's abandonment of his has earned him at least $61 million (see below) and the approval of The New York Times. It praises his "positive role" and gives him "considerable credit" for the passage of the bill, which has received so much supportive editorializing from the Times, in news stories and editorials, that it should be called Shays-Meehan-Times.

What pleased the Times is that Bush did next to nothing to discourage--in fact Fleischer issued a statement that encouraged--passage of a bill chock-full of provisions that Bush, who swore an oath to defend the Constitution, has said violate the First Amendment. Two years ago he affirmed this principle expressed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: "There is no constitutionally significant distinction between campaign contributions and expenditures. Both forms of speech are central to the First Amendment." When asked about the principle that it is hostile to First Amendment values to limit individuals' participation in politics by limiting their right to contribute, he said, "I agree." Asked if he thinks a president has a duty to judge the constitutionality of bills and veto those he considers unconstitutional, he replied: "I do."

Now he seems ready to sign Shays-Meehan-Times. Why? Could it have something to do with the fact that the bill raises from $1,000 to $2,000 the limit on individuals' contributions to House, Senate and presidential candidates? Candidate Bush got $1,000 contributions from 61,000 people. If he can get just that many to give $2,000--for a sitting president, that should be a piece of cake--the bill that he says "makes the system better" will be worth an extra $61 million to him in 2004.

The ardent-for-reform Washington Post--the bill should have been called Shays-Meehan-Times-Post--baldly asserts (talk about the triumph of hope over experience) that the bill "will slow the spiral of big-money fundraising." Actually, the 2003-04 election cycle probably will see the normal increase in political spending. The difference will be that in the next cycle much more of the political giving will be more difficult to trace. The soft money that Shays-Meehan-Times-Post bans--contributions to parties--must be reported. Henceforth much of that money will go to independent groups that will not have to report the source of the money that finances their issue advertising.

One of the bill's incumbent-protection measures says that a candidate whose opponent is very wealthy can receive contributions larger than $2,000. But the Supreme Court has held that the only constitutional justification for limiting political contributions is to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof. So this bill claims, in effect, that the appearance of corruption from a large contribution varies with the size of one's opponent's wallet.

Another incumbent-convenience provision makes it much more difficult for independent groups--labor unions, corporations, nonprofit entities (individuals are another matter; see next paragraph)-- to run ads that so much as mention a House, Senate or presidential candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election--in effect, after Labor Day.

In the name of protecting regular people from rich people, the bill has this effect: A millionaire can write a check for $1 million and run a political ad that the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club could not run using $1 contributions from 1 million individuals.

Most representatives who voted for the bill probably do not know half of what is in it. They cannot know. No one will know until there have been years of litigation about Federal Election Commission regulations issued to "clarify" things. What, for example, is meant by "coordination"? Consider.

There are dollar limits on contributions to candidates, but not on spending for political advocacy by independent individuals or groups--unless they are coordinated with the candidate. In that case they are counted as contributions to the candidate, and thus limited. The bill says coordination includes "any general or particular understanding" between such an individual or group and a candidate. If proper law gives due notice of what is and is not permitted, this is not the rule of law.

Opinion polls invariably show negligible public interest in campaign-finance reform, but almost every congressional district has at least one newspaper hot for reform. Media cheerleading for the bill has been relentless. For example, NBC's Katie Couric, advocating passage of what should be called the Shays-Meehan-Times-Post-Couric bill, wondered whether Enron's collapse would make "people say, 'Enough is enough! This has got to happen!' " The media know that their power increases as more and more restrictions are imposed on everyone else's ability to participate in political advocacy.

The bill repeals the politicians' entitlement to buy advertising at the lowest rate stations charge any buyer. This will mean hundreds of millions of dollars of extra revenue for broadcasters. Is this a reward for the media's support? Is there an appearance of corruption here? Never mind. But note this. Repeal of the entitlement is another gift from incumbents to themselves: Challengers usually have less money, so they will be most hurt by higher ad rates.

The bill's authors say soft money is (a) scandalous and (b) not to be tampered with until after they have re-elected themselves. That is, they refused to ban soft money until they have spent all that their parties have raised and will frenetically raise until November. It is going to be that kind of year.