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Jewish World Review April 2, 2002 / 20 Nissan, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Lack of soft money hard on campaigners | It's good that political parties soon won't be able to collect soft money, but campaign finance reform isn't about to turn political operatives into angels.

It's possible that one unintended consequence of reform will be to make American politics even more negative, harsh and partisan than it already is.

That's because, to make up for the loss of soft money ($500 million in 2000), the parties will have to collect as much as they can in hard money and spend it in ways that will deliver the most devastating bang for the buck.

So we should expect direct-mail soliciting that's even more strident than at present, fund-raising calls to corporate executives that are higher pressure, and ads that excoriate opponents even more harshly to get the message across.

Corporations and unions can't contribute from their treasuries, so party operatives will be after them to swell participation in their political action committees.

Ironically, the party that led the way toward reform in the name of cleaning up politics -- the Democratic Party -- will be especially tempted to walk on the dark side in the post-reform era because it was more dependent on soft money in the pre-reform era than the GOP.

Once attacked, of course, Republicans will retaliate in kind -- and they will have more hard money with which to do so.

Another aspect of reform could have the same nasty consequence. Political ads by special interest groups in the last 60 days before a campaign can only be financed with hard money whose sources are fully disclosed.

But before that time, the new McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan law will create what amounts to a free-fire zone, allowing groups to mount ad campaigns with money collected in unlimited amounts.

During this period it will be hard to get voters to pay attention to candidates, so the ad campaigns likely will be graphic and savage, designed to cast an opponent in the worst possible light as early as possible in an election cycle. Campaigns will be longer, not shorter, than they are now.

The best aspect of the new reform law is that it will bar federal officeholders, including presidents and Members of Congress, from pressuring corporate executives, union officers and rich people to make huge contributions to national parties.

That's been a corrupting process all around. But reform will have the downside of making politicians even more dependent than they already are on hard money and those who raise it.

The law doubles the size of permissible contributions from $1,000 per person per year to $2,000, but office seekers still will have to spend inordinate amounts of time on fund-raising because they won't have their parties to back them up with soft-money ads.

They will be all the more reliant on "bundlers," people who will spend time collecting hard money for them. Often these will be union officials, corporate lobbyists or agents of some other special interest.

Although they can't raise soft money for national parties, members will be able to do so for state parties and for what's likely to be a proliferating array of state party committees. These entities can't spend the money on federal elections, but they can do generic advertising and conduct get-out-the-vote drives that will benefit federal candidates.

Members also can raise unlimited amounts of money for nonprofit entities that will proliferate, spend unlimited amounts of money on "issue ads" up to 60 days before an election, and engage in other election activities.

Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr said last week that the new law will create "a cottage industry on K Street" consisting of nonprofits that will mount telemarketing, direct-mail and voter-registration campaigns on behalf of special interests.

The conservative Starr and liberal First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams are lead counsel in Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) forthcoming legal challenge to everything in the new law except its increase in hard-money limits.

Even backers of the law admit there's a 50-50 chance that the Supreme Court will strike down its limits on "electioneering" ads that mention candidates by name within 60 days of an election.

Abrams said he deems the ban on corporate, union and individual soft money unconstitutional as well because it limits the amount of "speech" these entities can finance.

However, reform advocates believe the soft-money ban will survive in court because bans on corporate and union contributions to campaigns previously have been upheld.

If the Supreme Court was to keep the new law's ban on soft money for parties but strike down limits on independent issue ads, it would create a new political world dominated by highly ideological special-interest groups capable of receiving and spending money in unlimited amounts.

Ads run by the National Rifle Association and the NAACP in recent years have been far more savage than anything mounted by the parties. We could expect more of that. One partial answer to the danger is to lower the cost of advertising by candidates and parties by requiring television and radio stations to provide free air time. This would make hard money stretch further.

Another step would be to pass a tax credit for small political contributions to encourage more people to make hard-money donations to candidates and parties.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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