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Jewish World Review March 21, 2001 / 26 Adar, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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On campaign finance reform, is something better than nothing? -- IN some ways, campaign-funding reform is like heart-bypass surgery --- it requires constant care and a complete change in lifestyle afterwards. Even then, chances are excellent it will have to be redone sooner than later to clear away new debris that has clogged the system.

As the Senate begins a full-fledged debate on how to curb the horrendous cost of modern politics (an estimated $3 billion in the last election), even the chief sponsors of reform concede that what they propose probably is only a temporary solution and that their main opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is probably right when he says there is no way to wring all the money out of the way we elect our officials.

Just look at the history of reform, for instance. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt, appalled at the amount of influence over the election process exerted by the capitalist robber barons, managed to win a ban on corporate contributions in federal elections. Forty years later, the moguls of industry had been replaced by the moguls of labor and direct union contributions were similarly outlawed.

Neither of these restrictions made much difference in the long run as corporate and union leaders and political parties and committees quickly found ways around them. Corporate sponsors just paid their executives more with the expectation that some of that money would go to support political candidates with positions favorable to the company. Unions, meanwhile, spent millions on "political education" of its members that in truth supported one candidate or another and supplied chosen candidates with thousands of man hours of "volunteer" help.

Then in 1974, in the post-Watergate morality that gave birth to a host of bad ideas, Congress placed a $1,000 limit on the amount an individual could give to any one candidate. It was a reform that seemed to make a difference for a short time until someone discovered something called "soft money" and the genie was out of the bottle. If individuals were restricted in their contributions to a particular candidate, what was to stop them from giving large sums to political parties and organizations to promote issue advertising and get-out-the-vote programs and so forth? Nothing - as long as funds were used strictly for nonspecific-candidate purposes.

So soft money, first gathered in large amounts by 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, seemed to relieve some of the tension for a while until Bill Clinton and Al Gore used huge amounts of it for their own campaigns in direct contravention of federal law, demonstrating the need for reform.

Now it is this spigot that Republican Sen. John McCain and his partner, Democrat Sen. Russell Feingold, want to turn off, and for the next few weeks Americans are going to be treated to a legislative brawl. Brandishing his own impressive national 68 percent favorable rating and fervent in his belief that he is in possession of the proverbial idea whose time has come despite no real public outcry, McCain hopes to hold off several alternate plans, at least one backed by President Bush, and dozens of amendments, most of which he sees as aimed at poisoning true reform.

An amendment McCain says he will support goes to the very heart of soaring costs: television charges. One proposal calls for forcing TV stations to accept only the lowest rate on their schedule for political ads, even during prime hours, and another would require federally licensed stations to provide free air time to candidates. Both plans have heavy First Amendment considerations.

While TV political charges fuel skyrocketing costs, they also have become a salvation for broadcast properties, once considered licenses to print money but now made increasingly less profitable by competition for advertising. Many of these companies manage to stay alive because of election-year revenues.

In 1907, Roosevelt was aided in his push for campaign reform by E.W. Scripps, owner of the world's largest media corporation at the time. Scripps issued a startling order banning all political advertising from his coast-to-coast big-city newspapers. He believed that such advertising detracted from the editorial credibility of his papers. Other publishers were forced to follow. Scripps, who died long before the advent of television, undoubtedly would be shocked that his company's broadcast division now benefits handsomely from the political revenue to its major market stations.

McConnell believes that political contributions are the blood that carries the oxygen to the political system. McCain sees money as the root of political corruption. Both are probably right. Some sort of bypass surgery is necessary now and probably later too.

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