Cleaning Up Campaign Finance

Congress must play hardball with soft-money policy

This summer, the American public was subjected to a salacious barrage of anti-Kerry ads, paid for in full by the unfortunate fellows from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And, for a while, we were distracted. Their claims against Kerry’s war hero status too tantalizing to pass up, his flip-flopping on Vietnam too traitorous to ignore—that is, until the accusations were debunked. After a ridiculous amount of media coverage—as though we could expect anything less from our friends in the establishment—the public was finally granted a much-needed reprieve from the incessant and insipid focus on the candidates’ war records, or lack thereof. But, thanks, in part, to a couple of well-to-do Texans, the Swift Boat boys are at it again.

The political action group recently replenished its coffers with contributions totaling $3 million dollars, enabling it to launch a new television and mail campaign to attack Kerry’s war record yet again. One ad features the wives of two former POWs giving compelling accounts of the horrors endured by their husbands, followed by insinuations that Kerry bailed out of Vietnam when things got tough. According to the commercials, Kerry also “secretly met with enemy leaders,” “betrayed his fellow veterans” and “accused all Vietnam veterans of unspeakable horrors.” (No, during the group’s commercial hiatus, they didn’t manage to become more clever or creative.)

So, who were the philanthropists that donated so generously—each supplying a munificent $1 million—to the cause? Two Texas-based executives, Harold Simmons and T. Boone Pickens, who’ve been longtime donors to President Bush and his party. Shocking, I know. And just to speak a word of these quality contributors, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Simmons’ Waste Control Specialists firm won permission this year from the Texas Health Department in its efforts to dispose of low-level nuclear waste in West Texas. Environmentalists are fighting the decision.” Nuclear waste in West Texas? No wonder he’s so anxious to ensure Bush stays in office.

But, while we watched Kerry and comrades get up-in-arms over the fallacious attacks this summer, it seems that the Kerry camp is much more at ease this time around. According to the Times article, Kerry’s spokesman, Michael Meehan, dismissed the group as “the national laughingstock.” And he’s probably right. Despite the fact that the ads will run on cable and in the influential—and up-for-grabs—states of Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Mexico, the group has already been exposed as dubious, so it’s unlikely that the American public will put much stock in the new ads—I hope. Rather, the group’s revitalization is just indicative of the problem endemic to current campaign finance laws.

When the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) was signed into law by President Bush in 2002—the ever touted McCain-Feingold effort—its fundamental purpose was to curb outrageous campaign contributions that had been the source of so much political woe. Yet, on both sides of the political spectrum, groups quickly mobilized to find ways around the legislation, establishing all sorts of loophole groups that fell under the radar of soft-money restraints. The Swift Boat Veterans and their Texan philanthropists are simply a flagrant example of the way in which these groups are succeeding in their efforts to skirt rules and manipulate the media.

Of course, it was never doubted that determined groups would find a way around the rules. When the Supreme Court considered the inevitable case against campaign finance laws in Dec. 2003—on grounds that the laws infringed on First Amendment rights—it ruled in favor of the restrictions; yet, even at the time of decision, the justices were wary of the ruling’s real implications. As it issued its majority opinion, they wrote, “We are under no illusion that BCRA will be the last congressional statement on the matter. Money, like water, will always find an outlet.” And with this most obvious prophesy, the justices left it at that, concluding: “What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day.” Clearly, that day has come.

The only hope for the convoluted campaign finance laws is to offer a clear cut set of restrictions, immune—or at least less vulnerable—to such easy circumvention. If legislators can put aside ideology for a moment, as they did in 2002, perhaps a more effective brand of campaign finance reform can be devised.

Morgan R. Grice ’06, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.