Washington — How frustrated are proponents of campaign-finance reform? After the Shays-Meehan bill died a messy death in the House of Representatives last week, The New York Times was reduced to complaining about Speaker Dennis Hastert's "thuggish" procedural tactics, and Sen. John McCain, in characteristic fashion, suggested that opposition to his pet legislation is "the last refuge of scoundrels."
So anyone expecting a congressional debate on campaign finance should take note: This is not an issue that divides reasonable people, or acknowledges a number of plausible points of view, but a struggle to the death between the Forces of Good and Thugs and Scoundrels. Fortunately, the Thugs and Scoundrels prevailed this time.
It cannot be denied that most Republicans were deeply uncomfortable with campaign-finance legislation in the form of McCain-Feingold. But in truth, the Democrats were bitterly divided as well, and with just as many valid reasons as Republicans. In the past, Democrats had freely voted to ban "soft-money" contributions, safe in the knowledge that soft money would ultimately survive in the Senate. But with near-unanimous support from the media, McCain-Feingold actually passed the Senate this year, putting House Democrats in a genuine dilemma. They wanted to exploit campaign-finance reform as a future campaign issue condemning Republicans as opponents of progress but they didn't want to ban soft money, either.
So the Democrats retreated to procedural sleight of hand. While Speaker Hastert wished for the House to vote separately on Shays-Meehan's various amendments (the way things are usually done in Congress), the Democrats demanded a comprehensive vote, embracing all the disparate amendments at once.
This was unacceptable to the Republican leadership in the House, which suspected that the Democrats didn't have the votes for Shays-Meehan, that their leaders knew it and were looking for an avenue to legislative martyrdom.
Of course, the underlying problem is that campaign-finance reform is one of those phrases that everyone agrees sounds suitably commendable, but doesn't stand up very well under scrutiny.
Yes, the influence of money from special interests is an element in politics, but is it necessarily bad, and what exactly do we mean by special interests, anyway? Is it the special interests that promote our pensions or voting rights or favored programs, or the special interests that protect things and people we deplore?
Should unions and corporations and citizen organizations be forbidden to support candidates who advance their cause? The problem is not the presence of money in politic but accountability: Voters ought to know who gives what, and to whom, before casting their ballots.
Let the voters, not a federal bureaucracy, decide such things.
Worst of all, McCain-Feingold was a legislative assault on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. While it banned issue advertisements within 60 days of an election when sponsored by trade associations, labor unions, environmental organizations or political activists literally imposing criminal penalties it preserved the free-speech rights of incumbents and the media.
This is not campaign-finance reform, but the nationalization of money in politics, with federal supervision, in the image of the media, to the evident advantage of certain favorites and incumbents, and at obvious cost to the health of democracy. Three cheers for the thugs and scoundrels who resisted.
Philip Terzian is associate editor of the Providence Journal.