An Inclusive Litany

3/11/02

A 2001 study conducted by the American Conservative Union by election-law attorney Cleta Mitchell found that groups dedicated to promoting campaign finance legislation—often depicted as underfunded grass-roots organizations—spent over $73 million from 1997 to 1999 to promote their cause. In comparison, the Center for Responsive Politics, which supports a campaign finance overhaul, lists total spending by the "mortgage banking" industry at under $12 million, by "Health Services and HMOs" at under $14 million, and by drug manufacturers at $28 million in the four years from 1997 through 2000.

Writing in the National Review, Federal Election Commission member Bradley A. Smith notes that Mitchell's study actually understates spending by campaign finance reform groups because it doesn't include spending by affiliated tax-exempt 501(c)(4) committees, and misses significant groups such as the National Voting Rights Institute, which describes itself as "a prominent legal and public education center in the campaign finance reform field," and which widely promotes the view that private campaign contributions are unconstitutional.

Similarly, the CRP's figures overstate industry contributions, since they include individual contributions made by company employees or their non-working spouses. Most recently, congressmen said to have received "Enron" contributions often simply received funds from its employees or its stockholders, which may arguably qualify as healthy participation in the democratic political process.

Polls consistently show that voters regard campaign finance reform as a relatively unimportant issue, a stubborn fact that is reflected in reform groups' small membership base. Many groups are little more than glorified lobbying firms that rely on six- and even seven-figure grants from large foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, Joyce, and Pew Charitable Trusts, or on a handful of politically liberal multi-millionaires such as George Soros, Jerome Kohlberg, and Steven Kirsch. Common Cause, by far the largest, has 200,000 members. (In contrast, the National Rifle Association, which it routinely describes as a "special interest," has 4.2 million members.)

In many ways, campaign finance reform groups resemble the special interests whose malignant political influence they seek to curtail. Campaign for America, a creation of Jerome Kohlberg, helped get the recent Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill through Congress by directing an extensive "issue advertising" and phone bank campaign in wavering congressmen's districts, all paid for with (relatively) unregulated soft money. In fact, much of the bill was even drafted by campaign-finance lobbyists rather than by congressional staffers. Press reports revealed that a group consisting of former McCain 2000 counsel Trevor Potter, Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer, and Don Simon of Common Cause drafted key portions of the complex 86-page bill, at times working out of offices in the Capitol the evening before House debate was to begin and part of the day on which the bill was being debated. They released the final version a few minutes before midnight, virtually guaranteeing that nobody would be able to read it in time to vote on it.

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