Sunday, April 01, 2001

'Buying' candidates getting tougher

Campaign finance reform all the rage now

        We weren't sure we'd live long enough to see it, but it would appear Congress is close to policing itself on the subject of campaign finance. The foxes are throwing a cordon around the hen house.

        Monday, the Senate is likely to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. And, although it is likely to have a bit rockier time of it in the House, it probably will pass there, too.

        It would mean the end of corporations, unions and various fat cats of both partisan stripes funneling huge amounts of unregulated “soft money” through the political parties.

        And it would put an end — at least in the last 60 days of the campaign — to the phony “issue” ads bought by unions, corporations and interest groups in which they pretend to be discussing issues but are in fact attacking or defending particular candidates.

        McCain-Feingold opponents tried and failed to make their argument that “money equals speech.”

        But money is money and speech is speech. If the anti-reform
crowd is right, then if you have no money, you have no right to free speech. You must pay to play.

        We're not sure that's what Jemmy Madison and the powdered-wig boys had in mind back in 1787.

        So, there will be reform. It will not end campaign finance abuses; nothing short of an asteroid striking Earth would.

        But it will make them work harder to get around the law. And that's always good.

        The McCain-Feingold debate has been a very high-profile affair. Cincinnati has its own campaign finance reform fight brewing, although very quietly now.

        The League of Women Voters and other civic activists are out and about with petitions to gather the 6,845 signatures of Cincinnati voters they will need by the end of August to put a charter amendment on the November ballot.

        They are about halfway home now and the League, diligent bunch that they are, no doubt will succeed.

        The charter amendment itself may be a hard sell — it tries to limit spending in Cincinnati City Council campaigns by offering candidates public funds if they limit their own fund-raising to $50,000. If you, Mr. or Ms. Council Candidate, raised $50,000, you would get a check for $100,000 out of the city's general fund.

        Proponents argue this would hold down the costs of campaigning for council, which has gotten very expensive. Two years ago, a field of 20 candidates spent a record $2.5 million.

        And, proponents say, it will help end the perception — real or imagined — that local politicians can be bought by special interests and big contributors, mainly because they won't need so many of them.

        It should be a raucous debate, taking place right in the middle of a council campaign and the first direct election for mayor in 75 years.

        Opponents will tell the voting public that their hard-earned tax dollars shouldn't be landing in the campaign accounts of politicians.

        And, if the proponents are smart, they will have a quick reply — let's buy the politicians before the special interests do.

        Email Past columns at

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