The Lonely Centrist

A place for reasoned debate about the issues of the day.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Campaign Finance Ignorance of John McCain

What are we to make of John McCain? Among those familiar with campaign finance laws, it has long been known that John McCain is woefully ignorant of the law. But how ignorant? Well, browsing the web I happened across the transcript of a 2002 interview (hey, here at the Lonely Centrist we're not like those bloggers who are on top of everything and posting every day) of Senator McCain by Peter Robinson, for the PBS program "Uncommon Knowledge." Though the interview is old, it is worth posting some excerpts:

It has never been held anything but constitutional there's a limit on the amount of money that I can raise.

Oops. That's wrong. See Buckely v. Valeo.
Even though there's laws on the books that say it's against the law for corporate contributions and union contributions--those people are able to exploit loopholes and get unlimited contributions.

Contributions from corporations and unions to candidates are prohibited. I'm not aware of any loophole around that, even in 2002.
Somebody wants to give some corporation or some union $10 million and funnel it into my campaign, they can.

Illegal earmarking; illegal contribution in name of another; etc. etc.
So what we've done in this law is say no. If you want to give, you corporation, and you union want to give money, then you can only give it in the same amounts of money that individuals are allowed to give money to McCain.

Oops. Wrong again. Under McCain-Feingold, corporate and union contributions remain prohibited. Corporate and Union PACs can give not the same amounts to McCain as an individual, but more than twice as much. I'm beginning to wonder if Senator McCain has been violating the law?
In the 1980s when I first started running for office, there was no such thing as soft money

Wrong. See Common Cause Petition for Rule Making on Soft Money, Federal Register, Jan. 4, 1985, p. 477.
In 1947 we outlawed union contributions.

Well, 1943 actually, but we'll give the Senator the benefit of a doubt, since it was in 1947 that the ban was made "permanent."
The so called Snowe-Jeffords amendment which prevents thirty days before primary and sixty days before a general that advertisements be run that are funded by unlimited amounts of money. In other words restricts the amount of money.

Well, no. It limits corporate and union money, but a George Soros or Charles Wyley can still spend unlimited amounts.
Oh, one more quote:
I was always in favor of campaign finance reform.

Well, no. Senator McCain voted against "reform" in both 1987 and 1988, just before the Keating Five scandal (McCain, of course, was one of the "five") broke.

And this is all in just one interview!

Dead Eye Dick

For what it's worth, watching some Democrats try to make something out political out of Dick Cheney's hunting accident is one of the dumbest things I've seen in a long time.

C'mon Democrats: America wants a realistic alternative to the current administration and Congress. Grow up and get serious, quit living on Bush hate, and you'll have more votes in November than you know what to do with.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Hear! Hear!

I think most Americans just think its common sense to require some form of ID at the polls, don't you?

Great post by Michael Barone.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Repeat After Me: "Corporate Campaign Contributions are Illegal; Corporate Campaign Contributions are Illegal; Corporate..."

This could have been prompted by any number of web entries, letters to the editor, or newspaper articles we routinely see, but in this specific case was prompted by the Hotline Blog entry discussing the Obama/McCain showdown.

Read through the comments on the entry above. Several commenters argue that we need to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns. Of course, we did that in, oh, 1907. This points up what a thorough job of disinformation the so-called "reform" community has done.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Watch that First Step

Congress is all adither about the fact - which they just seem to have discovered - that Indian Tribes, unlike individuals, are not subject to aggregate limits on their political contributions. Apparently concerned that we haven't done enough to screw the Indians lately, there's a move afoot to limit this, "loophole."

Always one to find the limelight, John McCain held a hearing today on Indian Tribe campaign giving, and suggested taht we need more disclosure. According to Congressional Quarterly, Senator McCain says, "Transparency is always the first step when there's a problem."

And that's the fear.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Did Radical Muslims Write Seinfeld?

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has, in the words of the Guardian, "dismissed the killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in the second world war as a "myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

This is one of the more curious things in Islamo-fascism - this effort to both deny that the Holocaust occured, while suggesting that it would be a good thing if it had occured, or would occur.

It reminds a bit of the famous episode in Seinfeld, in which a young reporter outs Jerry, and Jerry spends the rest of the episode denying that he is gay, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

I expect any day now we'll get exactly that Ahmadinejad quote: "Hitler did not attempt genocide against the Jews. Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Campaign Finance: the Beguiling Appeal of Simple Reform

James Carville and Paul Begala have offered up a simple proposal for campaign finance reform in the Washington Monthly. I won't outline the proposal, but the Skeptic, who drew our attention to it, has some worthy comments.

The first thing to note is that Carville and Begala take what is basically a bribery scandal (Abramoff) and use it to justify campaign finance reform. But to get to the point:

In their straightforward approach, Carville and Begala present the idea with a beguiling appeal - a Ross Perotish, "just fix it," approach. The proposal is full of simple absolutes: "Not one dime." "Members of Congress cannot take anything of value from anyone other than a family member. No lunches, no taxi rides. No charter flights. No golf games. No ski trips. No nothing." "No president or member of Congress could accept a single red cent from individuals, corporations, or special interests. Period." "If an incumbent accepts so much as a postage stamp, he loses his seat. If a challenger doesn't report contributions, he loses his shot. If you cheat, you are out on your ass."

This is all designed to appeal to the typical citizen who is simply fed up with all this focus on process and money. What he wants is to just take this question off the board. But the Begala/Carville approach may not quite do the trick.

For unfortunately, this "no nuance" approach just isn't all it's cracked up to be. Do we really want to say that a well-financed challenger, with a solid chance to knock off an incumbent, will lose that chance just one week before the election (with no chance for a substitute challenger to step forward) because the campaign, due to clerical error, forgot to report a single $500 contribution? Do we really mean to say that if a campaign worker for an incumbent puts his own postage stamp on a single letter, the Congressman loses his seat? Can a congressman attend a friend's Christmas party? If so, must he reimburse the host, or pay in advance? Can a grateful constituent send him a box of chocolates for his office's assistance in solving a holdup in social security disability benefits?

The point is not that these issues can be dealt with. It is that as soon as we start dealing with them, the Carville/Begala plan starts to lose its simplistic appeal.

The Skeptic raises the more serious questions. What about outside participation? Can other people speak out about a candidate? If so, aren't we back to square one?

Carville/Begala propose that incumbents get for their campaign 80 cents in tax dollars for every dollar the challenger raises. Is that a good number? Is it fair that challengers have to spend time raising private funds, but not incumbents? Doesn't it give the incumbent a built in issue: "Unlike my opponent, I won't be beholden to anyone."

Whenever I read these types of plans - like the Ackerman/Ayres "donation booth" - like the Skeptic, I want to congratulate the authors for at least thinking outside the box. But it seems to me that all these plans are, at bottom, efforts to avoid the obvious solution - deregulation of the whole process. Of course, deregulation raises it issues - concern about the role of money, etc. Which is to say simply that there is no perfect world. But the deregulated world worked pretty well really, if you think Lincoln and Cleveland and the Roosevelts and Truman and Eisenhower were pretty good presidents; if you think that this country muddled through its first 180 years in pretty good shape.

Guys like Carville and Begala can accept anything other than the one truly simple, clearly constitutional, and frankly, traditional solution: deregulation. Deregulation is the one proposal that is off the table from the start. But perhaps the way we really take the broader issue off the table for the average citizen is to just stop putting it on the table. Let people say what they want, spend what they want, and let voters decide.

Politics, Good Government, and DOJ

Commenting on Mark Posner's recommendations that career staff at the Department of Justice's Voting Rights Section be given greater authority to determine policy vis a vis the president's appointees, the always insightful Bob Bauer notes that political laws and rules have political effects. Bauer suggests that the solution is more, not less, political accountability. This is one with which I agree.

Bauer comments on the Lonely Centrist's post that suggests that the career staff at DOJ does indeed have political leanings, and that they lean left. He suggests "not that the Centrist was right, but that he believes that he is right." He continues, "the beliefs of “professional staff” are not necessarily, by definition, most true to the merits and least corrupted by 'politics.'"

To be clear, I think my point was the same as Bauer's - it is not that staff recommendations were wrong in interpreting the law (maybe they were, maybe they weren't), or that the staff was highly biased in reaching them (maybe they were, maybe they weren't), it is that 1) there should not be a presumption that the staff is somehow pure. My purpose was precisely to set out some of the evidence that would make some people question the alleged impartiality of the career staff - not to suggest that one quick post, based on 20 minutes web research, made a conclusive case. Simply put, if the DOJ career staff is going to claim some special level of non-ideological, non-partisan analysis based simply on being "career staff," it is proper to look at evidence that suggests that there are political leanings in the staff, and to recognize that those leanings may play a role in the way they look at voting rights issues. Note that the career (and ex-career) staffers complaining about all this could avoid the question by basing their argument more on the merits, rather than hiding behind their alleged status as apolitical career staffers.

Though I did not go into the issue, from that point I would agree with Bauer that, "DOJ cannot avoid—and it has not typically escaped—the pull of politically charged questions in either Democratic or Republican Administrations." And from there, Bauer and I seem to share the belief that there should be political consequences for decisions with political results, and political appointees should not be able to hide behind career staff.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

DOJ Voting Rights Section - Are Civil Servants Really Non-ideological?

I wanted to quite writing about the Department of Justice Voting Rights Section and the likely political/ideological leanings of its staff, after a series of posts here, here, here, here, and here. But now and then folks just won't let you move on.

In the first of the posts linked above, I noted that of late there has been much criticism alleging that the Bush Administration is policiticizing the application of the Voting Rights Act (imagine - a law being applied for political advantage! Do we have another contender for most naive man?). This criticism has relied heavily on information of former lawyers in the Voting Rights Section at the Department. The critics have relied on the alleged disinterested of the career "professionals" (these are not scare quotes - I use quotes because it is the term used so often by these critics) to suggest that their views are entitled to special weight - that is, those they criticize are motivated by politics and ideology, but they are not. That first post merely listed some of the political activity in which various career employees of the Voting Rights Section have engaged, through their political contributions, their post-DOJ employment, and through a Federal Court's damning indictment of the career DOJ employees' ideological approach in the case of Johnson v. Miller.

This sent many of these same DOJ employees over the edge - their reactions ranged from indignation to apoplexy. But they did not question the accuracy of the Centerman's post. (See the other links above).

Now today, courtesy of Ed Still's Vote Law blog, our attention is called to a study by one of the former DOJ employees, Mark Posner, produced for the American Constitution Society. One doesn't have to get past the introduction to find the thesis:

There is a real and significant, but at the same time limited, concern that the Justice Department's Section 5 decision making has in the past, and may potentially in the future, be guided by political considerations.

What to do?

Congress should enact a statutory underpinning for the procedures
historically used by the Justice Department to guard against political decision making. These procedures grant significant authority and
responsibility to the Department's career staff, which in turn places a major constraint on any desire or tendency of the political staff to decide submissions based on political considerations.

p. 3. (emphasis added)

Later, we learn that,

Traditionally, the sole aim of the career staff has been to utilize its
experience and expertise to enforce Section 5 so as to fulfill the congressional mandate of remedying ethnic and racial discrimination in voting. ... There historically have been few if any allegations that the career staff has ever sought to advance a partisan political agenda.


The Bush Administration is then accused of having made changes which

have the potential to significantly undercut the independent, non-partisan status of the Division's career staff in general and the Voting Section's staff in particular.

First, of course, note the confusion between "non-partisan" and non-ideological. It is not necessary to suggest that the staff is overtly partisan to suggest that they bring a political ideology to their work - and it is fair to cite their political contributions as one indicator (and I cited them as just one indicator) of what the career staff's ideological leanings are.

More to the point, Posner's study does exactly what the Centerman noted in his earlier posts: it suggests that in any dispute between political and career appointees at Justice, it must be the career staff whose interpretation of the law is probably correct, because they are not influenced by partisanship and ideology. Posner's study does little to argue why specific recommendations of the career staff that were not adopted were correct, or why decisions of the political appointees were incorrect, as a matter of law. Rather, his study operates on the assumption that career civil servants are obviously less ideological, if not non-ideological, in their work.

I think that this is probably not true. Thus, I think there is little or no reason to give special weight to the recommendations of career staff over those of the political appointees - indeed, one might go further and suggest that it is contrary to democratic accountability in government to do so.

I stress again that I do not suggest that the employees have acted improperly, or that their patterns of political giving and post-DOJ employment mean that their interpretations of the Voting Rights are incorrect. I do suggest, however, that we be skeptical about any approach that suggests that the recommendations of career staff are somehow entitled to a presumption of validity over the decisions of the political appointees who are entrusted with responsibility for the agency.

I think most folks around Washington who are familiar with DOJ's Voting Rights section know that the career staff tilts well to the left, but as the reaction to my little post suggests, it's one of those dirty little secrets one is not supposed to mention.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life