The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, April 03, 2006

The Media Just Can't Get Campaign Finance Reform Right

Here's an interesting article from Jonathan Chait at the Los Angeles Times. Hat tip to Richard Hasen's Election Law Blog. Chait skewers Republicans for the current crusade against 527 organizations. But the article also displays the inability of reporters such as Chiat to capture the nuance of campaign finance law, and his own bias from the left. For example, Chait writes:

WHERE ARE ALL the conservative defenders of unlimited political donations
hiding these days? For years they made a crusade of opposing the McCain-Feingold
law, which banned unlimited donations to political parties. For years you
couldn't read the papers for more than a couple of days without stumbling across
some conservative enraged at this draconian limitation on political speech. But
now that their side is pushing a ban that's way more draconian, the
conservatives — with their tender free-speech sensibilities — are nowhere to be

Well, not entirely. See here and here. It's true the big-time GOP brass is on board. But we should not confuse GOP partisans with Conservatives, either. I've not seen anything from any of the conservative grassroots groups supporting this - this appears to be purely a partisan matter for GOP operatives. And as any ideologue, left or right, will tell you, the interests of "liberals" often differs from that of "Democrats," and the interests of "conservatives" from those of "Republicans." There are issue people, and there are party people.

Chait goes on:

These party donations, known as "soft money," grew into an enormous loophole that rendered the restrictions almost meaningless. If candidate Smith wanted to solicit, say, a $100,000 donation, all he had to do was tell his donor to give the money to the party. The party could then turn around and plow the money back into Smith's race.

Again, not exactly. An earmarked contribution of that sort was illegal. It was true that a maxed out donor could give to the party, in the expectation that the party would support the campaign, but that is different from specific orders or promises - and frankly, it is pretty much the same difference that Chait seems to think is quite significant when we talk about 527s - see below.

Closing the soft-money loophole left those who wanted to bankroll politics big time with one alternative: ... Independent groups — called 527s, after the section in the tax code that covers them — raised unlimited sums and bought TV ads on behalf of their preferred candidates.

This is broadly accurate, but obscures some important facts. Soft money, whether raised by parties or outside groups, could never be used for ads expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. Although the reform lobby has long claimed no difference, recent research by Dorie Apollonio of the University of California and Margaret Carne of Rhodes College suggests that there is a considerable difference - and the fact that parties always preferred to raise unrestricted hard money is further evidence of that fact.

The conservative media, once so outraged over the soft-money ban, has mustered barely a word of protest.

This is not true. See herefor the Wall Street Journal(subscription required), here. Remember, there was much conservative media opposed to McCain-Feingold. There was the Wall Street Journal, and ... ? We might note that conversely, the liberal media, once so outraged over soft money, has mustered barely a word of encouragement or congratulations to the GOP for their conversion, or condemnation of the Democrats for blocking this "reform."

Back to Chait:
Indeed, 527s are clearly less corrupting than soft money. The old soft-money system let millionaires exert huge influence over the political system, and it also encouraged crooked quid pro quo trades — i.e., "I'll give your campaign a $100,000 donation if you promise to snuff out a regulation I don't like."

First, note how Chait now makes the argument he rejected earlier - that soft money is less corrupting. Well, OK, that' not how he makes it. But 527 giving used to be called another form of soft money. How is it less corrupting than soft money given to parties? Second, his example is simply wrong - the trade he suggest was and is clearly illegal: 1) it is probably illegal to make such an explicit deal in any circumstance, under bribery laws; and 2) it was, long before McCain-Feingold, illegal to give $100,000 to "your campaign." This is again indicative of the type of sloppiness that journalists have so long brought to reporting on this topic.

The 527s still give millionaires disproportionate influence. But they make the quid pro quo trade much harder to pull off; 527 groups can't coordinate their activities with candidates.

Yes, but neither can parties using soft money. So is the trade really harder? Probably it is easier. A 527 is likely to be a special interest group with a narrow agenda. A political party has a broad agenda, and can be hurt if it tilts too far in favor of a particular special interest. A single issue group is more likely to request the quid pro quo trade Chait suggests. And I really can't see how it is any harder to "pull off."

We shouldn't be too hard on Chait. This column probably shows a better understanding of the law than most, and it is admitedly hard, in the context of popular journalism, to capture a lot of nuance. But I think it also reveals what years of propaganda and misleading information from the reform community has accomplished. I doubt that Chait really knows or understands any of the points I note above.

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