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Money screams
Thirty years of campaign-finance reform have brought us confusion, loopholes, cynicism, and an erosion of free speech. It’s time to try something new.

MOST LIKELY, Wes Boyd thinks he’s being perfectly consistent. Through his own words, though, the co-founder of the progressive organization MoveOn.org has made it clear that his opinion of big-money politics has a lot to do with who’s counting the checks.

Three years ago, Boyd sent an e-mail to MoveOn members urging them to support the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill, which, among other things, banned political parties from accepting vast sums of unregulated contributions known as "soft money." Boyd wrote, "The bottom line: $500,000 donations to campaigns through political parties are clearly corrupt. Unlimited soft money contributions must stop."

McCain-Feingold became law. And with soft money now illegal in the official political system, millions of dollars have been migrating to the unofficial political system — to nonprofit committees known as 527s, so called after a provision in the IRS tax code. These groups can raise and spend soft money on political advertising, provided the spots don’t tell people explicitly to vote for or against Candidate X, and provided they don’t coordinate their activities with an actual political campaign.

One of these 527s is called the MoveOn.org Voter Fund. Its president is — yes — Wes Boyd. The fund has raised millions of dollars in small contributions, but also in a few large chunks from supporters such as the international financier George Soros. In recent months the fund has produced and paid for a considerable amount of advertising critical of George W. Bush, including a 30-second spot about the federal deficit that CBS refused to run during the Super Bowl (see "Media," This Just In, January 30). Thus it was entirely unsurprising that MoveOn, the Media Fund (run by former Bill Clinton aide Harold Ickes), and other pro-Democratic 527s caught the eye of the Republican National Committee, which filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission charging that they amounted to an illegal extension of the Kerry campaign. The Republicans’ chief counsel, Jill Holtzman Vogel, has called this "the single largest conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws in history."

And how did Wes Boyd respond to this challenge? In a statement released by his Washington, DC–based public-relations firm, he said, "First, the McCain-Feingold legislation was never meant to impair the ability of organizations like ours to operate independently of any candidate or political party." In a subsequent statement Boyd added, quite a bit more colorfully, "The Republicans want to muzzle the committees so that the Bush-Cheney campaign can conduct a $200 million TV advertising extravaganza with few other voices heard.... Americans don’t like thugs and bullies."

I wanted to ask Boyd why it was corrupt for political parties to raise and spend soft money, but perfectly okay if he does it. But a spokeswoman for Boyd told me that he didn’t have time for an interview. Not to pick on Boyd. He’s well-meaning, and MoveOn.org has done a lot of good work. Certainly I’m not going to object to another source of anti-Bush ads. But the controversy over the 527s underscores the central dilemma of campaign-finance reform. Every attempt to change the system for the better creates loopholes. Every attempt to close those loopholes opens up new ones. Political speech, which ought to be the most protected form of expression under the First Amendment, is subjected to further regulations and limits. And the cycle begins again.

Is this what we really want?

IF THE HODGE-PODGE of campaign-finance laws that has come into being over the past 30 years had been in effect in 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy may not have challenged President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy’s anti-war crusade was funded with a handful of six-figure contributions from people such as the Dreyfus family, who’d made their fortune on Wall Street, and Stewart Mott, a General Motors heir. McCarthy’s strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary persuaded Johnson not to seek re-election.

Yet after the Watergate excesses of the early 1970s, reformers were more concerned with preventing another Richard Nixon than with empowering another McCarthy. Laws were passed to limit both contributions and spending, and to haul the heretofore secret world of campaign finance out into the open. Those laws were challenged, and the Supreme Court, in its 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo (McCarthy was one of the challengers), ruled that though spending could not be regulated, certain limits on contributions were constitutionally acceptable.

The case currently before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on 527s may be decided by May, although there are indications that the commission may put off its ruling until after the election — thus allowing the new system to play itself out during the 2004 campaign. The case has the nonprofit community up in arms, since it could also lead to the regulation of groups that go by the designation "501(c)" — like the Sierra Club, for instance, or NARAL Pro-Choice America, whose purpose, unlike the MoveOn.org Voter Fund or the Media Fund, is not primarily political, but which do engage in campaign-related activities.

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Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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