Maybe liberals shouldn't work so hard

April 13, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- What is liberalism's appeal? Surely less its plausibility than the surprises it provides. Liberals constantly experience the excitement of the unexpected, the thrill of being startled by the unanticipated -- if only by them -- consequences of their actions.

After Senate passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill became a foregone conclusion, the Washington Post, which adores the bill, carried this front page headline: "Campaign Bill Could Shift Power Away From Parties." Could? McCain-Feingold would ban soft money contributions to political parties, so of course money diverted from that channel will flow into unblocked channels. The Post considers this news?

Do reformers consider this progress? Since when? Not long ago, political action committees were the root of all evil -- refusing PAC contributions was, indeed still is, a form of moral grandstanding by some candidates.

Disregard the rhetoric by McCain-Feingold enthusiasts about their bill curing the "problem" of "too much money in politics." Here are two safe bets: There will be more money spent in the 2001-2002 off-year election cycle than was spent in 1997-1998, and more spent in 2003-2004 than in 1999-2000.

The realistic way to reduce the amount of money in politics is to reduce the amount of politics in money -- the importance of government in allocating wealth and opportunity. Does the Post advocate less government as a path to less political money? No.

The day after the Post's story, the New York Times, a McCain-Feingold zealot, trumpeted this "news": "Campaign Finance Overhaul May Enhance Influence of Big Political Action Committees" May? This is not a close call.

If McCain-Feingold becomes law, by next year liberals, and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, will be describing PACs the way they describe all sources of political communication not yet rationed by regulations -- as "loopholes." They will propose closing the loophole by banning (their favorite word) PACs, or narrowing the loophole by, say, limiting the proportion of a candidate's contributions that PACs can provide.

Three days after that Times story, the lead story in Roll Call, the newspaper that covers Congress, was headlined: "Soft-Money PACs Banned." Do tell.

More than 40 House and Senate members operate so-called "leadership PACs" funded by soft money. But some members seem to have been too busy praising McCain-Feingold to read that bill. While voting for its ban on soft-money fund raising by the national party committees, they neglected to read what Roll Call calls "a little-noticed provision" prohibiting federal legislators or candidates for federal office from raising unregulated money for their PACs.

Roll Call -- written for professional legislators and their staffs -- says dryly: "That came as news to some Senate leaders who have opened leadership political action committees that operate outside of federal regulations."

On March 19, the day debate on the bill began, Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and McCain-Feingold supporter, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for his new leadership PAC. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who says "the Senate passed a good bill," recently launched a soft-money PAC.

The governors associations of both parties have been funded substantially by soft money. Both parties' conventions are funded in part by ad hoc entities that raise large amounts of soft money that may or may not be affected by McCain-Feingold. Now what?

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and many of the other liberal lobbies backing McCain-Feingold candidly say that it is inadequate, other than as a step toward public funding of all campaigns. That is, a system in which the only permissible political communication by parties and candidates would be what the government pays for.

If McCain-Feingold becomes law, liberals (and Mr. McCain, a conservative infected by liberalism's faith that good intentions, cleverly codified, can scrub the naughtiness from this fallen world) will soon demand more reforms to correct the unanticipated (by them) consequences of their reforms. That, too, is part of liberalism's appeal: It provides steady work.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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