A self-serving House debate on finance reform

Republicans and Democrats took unusual positions in a debate on campaign finance reform. To find out why, follow the money.


Farhad Manjoo
April 6, 2006 5:47PM (UTC)

There was an odd debate in the House on Wednesday as Republicans -- who are usually loath to restrain the flow of money in politics -- argued for a new campaign finance law, while Democrats, who've traditionally been on the side of strict finance rules, balked at further restrictions. To understand the reversal, it helps to know the meaning of one number: 527. And there's an odd word that might be helpful as well: Soros.

Republicans, you see, wanted to set limits on the amount of money raised by independent campaign organizations that have come to dominate recent elections. These organizations are known as 527s, and in the 2004 election, Democrats benefited greatly from them. You might have heard of some of these groups: MoveOn.org is one. America Coming Together is another. Many such groups received large amounts from extremely wealthy liberals, including George Soros, the liberal billionaire who donated $23 million in 2004. But the right also has its 527s, the most famous of which may have cost John Kerry the race. That group called itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; its biggest donor was Texas home-building baron Bob Perry, who gave more than $8 million to 527s in 2004.

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In a near party-line vote, Republicans managed to pass a bill that would cap individual contributions to groups like MoveOn at $5,000 (the bill would allow one to give $25,000 to groups conducting voter registration). Currently, the 527s are nearly unregulated; they're not allowed to call for the election or defeat of a specific candidate -- a MoveOn ad can't tell you to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2008 -- but they can generally criticize candidates (remember the Swift Boat ads?), and there's no cap on the amount of money that people can contribute to them. The House law would thus severely restrict the influence of big-time donors like Soros and Perry.

In 2002, when Congress last visited the issue of campaign finance regulation with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), Republicans argued that restricting how much money big donors could give to political parties would curb (wealthy) people's free speech. This year, it was Democrats making the speech argument. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, for instance, said that Republicans are "trying to muzzle the voices of American people who speak through 527s." Republicans, meanwhile, assumed the mantle of good government. Rep. David Dreier said the bill proved "the Republican Party is the party of reform," which sounded pretty funny coming from a party whose last majority leader had to step down because he'd been indicted for alleged wrongdoing in a campaign finance scheme.

To both sides' arguments, I'd like to now offer a serious, well-reasoned response: Ha ha ha. I hope they don't think we're buying this. Though there were some true believers in this debate -- Mike Pence, a Republican who opposes nearly all finance limits as a matter of principle, strenuously fought this bill even though it would have helped his side; Marty Meehan, a Democrat strongly in favor of limits, supported this bill even though it would have hurt his side -- the vote count tells the only story you need to know. This was a self-serving vote. Republicans abandoned their "principles" because this bill is good for them. Democrats abandoned theirs for the opposite reason.

None of this is unexpected, of course, but the politicians' attitude is dispiriting. The 527 groups clearly enjoy a loophole in the campaign finance regime that ought to be plugged -- you can't get big money out of politics if people like Soros and Perry are allowed to donate unlimited amounts. Democrats who say that such a restriction would impede free speech should worry about the long-term consequences of their position. Do they want corporations and wealthy conservative zealots to begin speaking very loudly by donating tens of millions to right-wing 527s (as surely will happen in 2008)? In addition, it's hard to believe that a $5,000 per-person limit would really silence the vast majority of donors to groups like MoveOn -- actual, everyday people who don't happen to have a few billion dollars in the bank.

On the other hand, for Republicans to push this measure as a vital, urgent issue of reform is misleading to the max. It'd be easier to believe that Republicans are concerned about dirty politics if they tried to stop people like Jack Abramoff before dealing with folks like Soros. The influence of Soros' money in politics is a worry; the influence of Abramoff's money in politics is a sin. Moreover, the specific language of this bill deserves scrutiny, as it actually expands the influence of money in politics in one respect -- it eliminates restrictions on how political parties can coordinate campaign efforts with candidates. Current law limits the amount of money that, say, the Republican Party can spend to promote a House candidate at $80,000 per district. This bill would allow a party to spend unlimited amounts on a candidate. (Contributions to parties, though, would still be capped at $2,000 per person.) Because the Republican Party takes in a lot more money than the Democratic Party, the measure is seen as helping the right.

One more thing: The Hill reports today that Sen. John McCain, who initially did not support the provision lifting parties' coordination with candidates, now seems to have switched his view. The paper notes that if the measure becomes law, it would greatly help McCain if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 -- the party would be allowed to spend unlimited sums to support him. Regular readers of this page know I've recently been questioning my stance on McCain. This move is another strike against him.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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