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Sweeping back the tide.

Byline: The Register-Guard

If this year's campaigns were its fruit, campaign finance reform is a lemon.

The just-concluded political campaigns were conducted under the rigors of what was advertised as the most far-reaching campaign finance reform legislation since the Watergate era. Yet under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold bill, the campaigns were more expensive, less accountable, more vicious and less transparent than before.

One of the McCain-Feingold bill's central ambitions was to control the flow of "soft money" - unregulated donations to political parties that supposedly could be used only for party-building activities, but in practice were widely spent to benefit party nominees. The effort succeeded mainly in showing that money in politics is like a balloon: Squeeze it here, and it expands over there.

Into the soft money vacuum rushed the 527 committees, so named because of the tax code section under which they operate. The 527s answer to no one - not the candidates, not the parties. Indeed, it is illegal for 527s to "coordinate" their activities with parties or candidates.

But they are partisan in the extreme. Among the best-known 527s are, dedicated to defeating George W. Bush, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, dedicated to torpedoing John Kerry. The top 10 527s each raised $10 million or more, and the grand total reached $350 million. Most of the biggest committees spread pro-Democratic (or anti-Republican) messages. That helps explain why President Bush called loudest for legislation to control the 527s. Yet the law made it both possible and necessary for both candidates and their parties to disclaim any influence over the groups.

As a trade-off for stepping on the soft-money air hose, the McCain-Feingold legislation doubled to $2,000 the amount that individuals can contribute to candidates, and raised the limit on individuals' donations to parties to $25,000 from $20,000.

Those increases, coupled with vigorous and sophisticated efforts to shake the money tree, allowed campaigns and parties alike to eclipse previous fund-raising totals. The best-financed incumbent narrowly outraised the best-financed challenger in history, $365 million to $334 million. The parties raised more than $1 billion, 12 percent more than before the McCain-Feingold legislation put an end to soft money.

With soft money having migrated to the 527s, and with hard money more than filling the vacuum for candidates and the parties, McCain-Feingold's remaining rampart is the Federal Elections Commission.

The FEC is empowered to enforce a ban on corporate-financed political advertising within 60 days of a general election, or within 30 days of a primary. The ban extends to nonprofit corporations, which means it affects public interest organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association. Prohibited broadcasts are those that include "electioneering," defined as ads that mention candidates by name.

These restrictions clearly limit Americans' right to free speech and their right to petition their government, but they were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. Applying the rules consistently has proven difficult. For instance, a group was able to promote the anti-terrorism efforts of Republicans in Congress because it did not name specific members. But a right-to-life group was not permitted to air ads urging viewers to call their congressional representatives, even though the ads did not mention the politicians' positions on abortion issues.

Congress needs to revisit the speech-control aspects of the McCain-Feingold law. It could exempt nonprofit corporations from the restrictions. Or it could repeal the rules altogether and get the FEC out of the business of deciding which political messages are permissible. One barrier to congressional action is the fact that the speech that is silenced by the FEC rules is mainly aimed at incumbents.

Perhaps the most Americans can expect in the field of campaign finance reform is complete and immediate transparency, with every donation disclosed and reported. Nothing else seems to be having much effect, and what few changes can be noted are for the worse.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Is campaign finance reform an oxymoron?
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 20, 2004
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