We know that money is the mother’s milk of politics and all that, but rarely are politicians as up-front as House Speaker Dennis Hastert was this week.
Hastert told his Republican colleagues that if Congress passed a ban on unlimited campaign contributions by corporate groups and others—the unregulated cash known as “soft money”—their party could lose its majority in the House.
It was a clarifying moment. With the House facing a crucial vote on campaign finance legislation next week, the airwaves and op-ed pages will be filled with seemingly high-minded arguments against reform. We’ll hear that new limits on campaign contributions would violate free speech rights, that they’d prevent political parties from strengthening themselves at the “grass roots,” that they’d get in the way of mobilizing voters.
Hastert has ripped through this decent drapery to reveal that this is really a vote about how power is wielded. It is the first test of whether Congress wants to respond to the corporatization of American politics exemplified by the Enron scandal.
The problem with most arguments against campaign reform is that they bear no relationship to how campaigns are run, how political money is spent, or what courts have said about Congress’s right to curb corruption by limiting the role of money in politics.
In an effort to encourage Congress and the courts to look at campaigns as they are, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law this week issued a definitive study of the role of television and money in the 2000 election. “Buying Time 2000,” by Craig Holman and Luke McLoughlin, is based on a study of more than 3,500 political advertisements aired more than 940,000 times during the last national election.
The results constitute a devastating point-by-point rebuttal of the standard arguments against reform. For example, soft-money advocates say that the unregulated cash is about building political parties and their organizations. But the largest single use of soft money—37.8 percent—is for media advertising. By contrast, only 8.5 percent of soft money went to mobilizing voters. Much of the rest went to administration and fundraising.
Ah, but when the parties advertise, aren’t they building support for themselves and the idea of a party system? Nope, say Holman and McLoughlin: “Almost 92 percent of party ads never even identified the name of a political party, let alone encouraged voters to register with the party, to volunteer with the local party organization, or to support the party.” The report confirmed what everyone who works in political campaigns already knows: The so-called “party” ads are just regular political ads in disguise.
Many opponents of campaign reform take sharp exception to a provision that would limit what is politely called “issue advertising.” The ban, which has been pushed by Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Jim Jeffords, the Vermont independent, applies only in the 60 days before an election and only to ads that mention the name of a candidate.
Opponents of reform say the ban on issue advertising would get in the way of legitimate debate on public matters. The Brennan report explodes the foundation of this claim by showing that the overwhelming majority of the ads run by outside groups in the two months before Election Day were designed not to make a case about an issue but to elect or defeat a particular candidate: “Approximately 86 percent of group-sponsored ads aired within 60 days of the 2000 election were electioneering issue ads rather than genuine issue ads.” They were another way of undermining the election law.
The one big difference between regular political ads run by candidates and the sham issue ads: The ads by outside groups were far more negative than the ones run by candidates, presumably because candidates can be held to account for what they put on television. And almost none of the legitimate issue ads would be banned by Snowe-Jeffords.
When Congress began trying to clean up the election system after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, the reformers’ animating concern was straightforward: If money plays too big a role in the election process, money’s influence will begin corrupting the way we govern ourselves. In one decision after another, the Supreme Court has held that because reducing corruption is a legitimate public goal, Congress has a right to regulate political contributions.
But the current system, as the Brennan report shows, has subverted these efforts. The reform bill being pushed by Reps. Chris Shays, a Republican, and Marty Meehan, a Democrat, is a modest effort to restore some limits on money’s power. If the House rejects this bill or amends it to death, it is sending only one message: Money rules.
E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.