How nice that everybody is now in favor of “campaign finance reform”-even George W. Bush. Like so many royalists do when confronted by pitchfork-toting populists, the Republican front-runner peeped out from under his overflowing treasure chest to issue a panicky endorsement of reform.
Suddenly, Mr. Bush has decided that “soft money” ought to be banned, a pronouncement so laudable and unexpected that perhaps no one will remember how his father’s backers first invented “soft money” in 1988. Does anyone still remember “Team 100″ and the “Eagles,” two of the exclusive soft-money clubs set up to fund the Bush-Quayle campaign? Members of Team 100 enjoyed special favors and unusual access after giving $100,000 or more to the Republican National Committee.
Senator John McCain described his rival’s press release on soft money as “a major change on his part.” Not so, according to the Bush campaign, which had already issued a statement claiming: “Governor Bush has consistently opposed all corporate and union soft-money contributions to political parties.” That claim may or may not be literally true of “Governor” Bush, but certainly isn’t true of citizen George W. Bush. According to every biography of the Texas Governor (except his own campaign memoir), he was instrumental in his father’s enormously successful soft-money fund raising in both the 1988 and 1992 campaigns.
That was then, and this is now. It seems fair to ask what would be the results of his newly touted “reforms.” Are they really designed to clean up a foul system that closely resembles legalized bribery, or are they merely self-serving measures intended to deflect criticism of his own fund-raising practices? Let’s examine the proposals offered on his campaign Web site.
How would he deal with the Washington lobbyists who have so generously financed his current campaign? “To ensure that lawmakers serve the public interest,” he suggests a prohibition on contributions to members of Congress from Federally registered lobbyists “while Congress is in session.”
That might eliminate the unwholesome spectacle of legislators leaving the Capitol to attend fund-raising parties right after voting, but it also leaves a rather large loophole. Lobbyists would still be free to donate whenever Congress adjourns-and to make pledges of donations at any time they please. The K Street gang might be inconvenienced by this scheme, but certainly not curbed in any significant way.
Mr. Bush also revives the old “paycheck protection” bill that has long been a favorite of Congressional Republicans. This plan would legally prohibit unions from using members’ money, without each worker’s specific permission, to support political candidates. It sounds highly principled, except that Mr. Bush insists on no such prohibition regarding corporate political action committees, such as forcing them to consult every shareholder before management decides to make political donations, or ceasing to coerce executives into making such contributions. So-called paycheck protection is actually an unfair scheme to cripple labor while empowering business, which is why it has been used by the Republican leadership as a “killer amendment” to hinder passage of otherwise sound reform legislation.
Mr. Bush also proposes to “preserve the right of individuals and groups-from the Christian Coalition to the Sierra Club-to run issue ads.” Reasonable people may disagree, on First Amendment grounds, with the original McCain-Feingold bill’s restrictions on issue-advocacy advertising. But quite understandably, Mr. Bush doesn’t mention the most notorious issue ad ever produced by a supposedly independent group: the racially polarizing “Willie Horton” ad of 1988, which was so helpful to his father’s campaign. (Voters should anticipate an updated version of this tactic from an “independent committee” next October, with ads that use frightening Buddhist nuns or Chinese generals instead of an African-American criminal.)
Entirely omitted from Mr. Bush’s reform package is any means to curb “bundling,” the practice through which his hundreds of lobbyist friends-known as the “Pioneers”-amassed his $70 million war chest during the past year or so. Restricted to individual contributions of $1,000, each of the Pioneers has nevertheless managed to raise at least $100,000 from various trade groups, corporate executives and so on.
Americans who still hope to reduce the undemocratic influence of money ought to consider a plan that Mr. Bush doesn’t even pretend to favor: public financing of political campaigns, with strict limits on spending and free television time for qualified contenders. Such radical change is probably the only reform that can make a real difference-which must be why Mr. Bush so vehemently opposes it.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.