There are as many opinions about its consequences as there are observers of the debate that has just finished.
Even after Monday's Senate vote, some doubt it will become law. Rep. Marty Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the co-sponsor of the companion bill in the House, said Sunday that even though the bill he and Republican Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut have written has twice passed the House, he is concerned about this year.
Delay is the first tactic available to opponents, led by the aptly named House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold were able to force their measure onto the early spring calendar by threatening to block action on any other bills in the 50-50 Senate. That is an empty threat in the House, where the GOP leadership controls what reaches the floor and when. Meehan worries that spring will fade into summer without action on the bill.
Neither of the House sponsors commands the media attention that McCain could generate, and influential Democratic leaders in the House are anything but fervent in their support of a measure they think might cripple their efforts to regain the majority next year.
Nonetheless, odds are that the House will sooner or later take up the Shays-Meehan bill, and Senate passage makes it all the more likely that legislation will go to President Bush. It will be a hard bill for him to veto, without labeling himself as a roadblock to reform. Already, the sounds coming out of the White House suggest that opponents of the measure should not assume a presidential veto.
All of which makes it surprising that even among backers of the measure, there is so much disagreement about what changes it will bring.
Some things are clear. Unregulated and unlimited soft-money contributions to political parties from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals will become illegal, thus ending an era of $100,000 and up contributions which the public regarded as bribes and many of the donors felt were extorted by powerful officeholders. If Senate-approved amendments survive the rest of the legislative process, the limits on individual hard money gifts to candidates and parties, unchanged since 1974, will be increased, and be further relaxed for candidates facing self-financed millionaire opponents. And candidates who take personal responsibility for their TV ads will be able to buy guaranteed time slots at preferential rates, rather than having to pay the current exorbitant charges.
All of that is to the good.
But other provisions of the Senate bill are much more dubious on constitutional grounds, and some of the second-order effects of the legislation may not be what the reformers hope -- or the political system needs.
First Amendment rights of association and expression are restricted by the parts of McCain-Feingold which bar any organization from buying an ad that praises or criticizes by name a specific candidate for federal office during the 60 days before an election. Such so-called issue ads, which are often indistinguishable from electioneering, would have to be financed the same way the candidates' own campaigns are -- by individual gifts for that purpose.
In trying to "level the playing field" for all those involved in the political game, the authors of the Senate bill have gone way too far in restricting freedom of speech. That is more than First Amendment advocates like myself -- and, I suspect, the Supreme Court -- can countenance. Groups, as well as individuals, have views they should be free to express at election time.
My guess is that this bill will weaken both political parties in the short term, by eliminating the soft money that makes up 40 percent of the Republicans' income and even more of the Democrats' revenue.The increase in hard money limits is likely to be of greater benefit to Republicans than to Democrats, and to incumbents more than challengers. So we may get campaigns that are "cleaner" but less competitive.
Or maybe not. The consequences are far from clear.(c) 2001 The Cincinnati Post
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