FEC Member Calls McCain-Feingold Bill A Corrupting Influence

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A member of the Federal Election Commission said he hopes President Bush will veto the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill if it reaches his desk, because he says the bill will limit free speech, drive people out of politics, corrupt American society and contribute to the entrenchment of incumbents.

FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith, speaking in Washington Monday, said the campaign finance reform bill now working its way through Congress will "socialize" American politics.

"There is no real excuse for it," he said. "We'll find that that our society ends up being more corrupt, rather than less corrupt."

If McCain-Feingold is enacted, Smith believes, "We'll find that there's a need at the top for lawyers and consultants. The James Carvilles and the Paul Begalas of the world will have more influence, and the political life of the great mass of Americans is impoverished."

Former President Clinton appointed Smith to the Federal Election Commission last year. He has a strong interest in campaign finance reform, even writing a book about it called "Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Reform."

Smith said the McCain-Feingold bill is not a new approach to campaign finance reform, but rather continues a 25-year tradition of regulations, fines and penalties.

He noted that for most of the country's history - until the 20th century - political campaigns had no laws at all.

"Even up until 1974, the campaign laws were pretty much without an enforcement mechanism and you could pretty much do you whatever you wanted. And we elected some pretty good presidents in that time," Smith said.

Limiting Speech and Ideas

Campaign finance reform, Smith believes, has reduced the exchange of ideas in American politics. "If you want to run for Congress now, you've got to start with very similar, popular bland ideas so you can raise money in small amounts," he said.

"In the old days, people who had different ideas like Gene McCarthy, who wanted to stop the war in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan, who wanted to reinvigorate conservatism, had a handful of supporters come to them, who would take care of the money so they could go out there and sell the ideas that changed the scope of American politics," said Smith.

"Nowadays you can't do that. You've got to raise a lot of $1,000 contributions and you've got to start with ideas that are kind of milquetoast and that aren't very offensive to anybody. You can't go out and sell your ideas, and this is exactly why campaign finance is limiting speech," Smith said.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban "soft money" contributions to national parties and their political committees. Critics say it won't take any money out of politics, but rather will funnel the money in different directions - to political advocacy groups, such as the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association.

Under the bill's provisions, labor unions and for-profit corporations would be prohibited from spending their money on radio or TV ads that refer to a clearly identified candidate and air within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Non-profit corporations would be allowed to fund political ads only with contributions from individuals (hard money). Disclosure would be significantly increased for these political advocacy groups, supporters claim.

Campaign finance reform tends to boost incumbents at the expense of their challengers, Smith said. He added that McCain-Feingold does nothing to change that because it restricts the ability of challengers to get their message across to voters, while incumbents have the advantage of being able to generate headlines by virtue of their incumbency.

During the recent Senate debate on the bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted that his bill is not a perfect solution.

"Real campaign finance reform will not cure all public cynicism about modern politics. Nor will it completely free politics from influence peddling or the appearance of it. But I believe it will cause many Americans who are at present quite disaffected from the machinations of politics to begin to see that their elected officials value their reputations more than their incumbency."

'Professional Do-Gooders'

"The system favors wealthy candidates," Smith said. "What's interesting is that the effort to restrict money influence is being promoted by professional do-gooders, the busybodies in places like Common Cause, the Center for Public Integrity and those kinds of people who are just always out telling us all how we ought to run our lives. Campaign finance reform has really stomped on a lot of good Americans who try to participate in grassroots politics."

McCain believes his bill will encourage more Americans to become interested in politics and vote in more elections.

"Maybe that will cause them to exercise their franchise more faithfully, to identify more closely with political parties, to raise their expectations for the work we do. Maybe it will even encourage more of them to seek public office, not for the privileges bestowed upon election winners, but for the honor of serving a great nation," McCain said.

The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold bill shortly before the Easter recess. The House is expected to pass the bill later this spring, and opponent shope the final legislation can be diluted in a House-Senate conference committee.

If a campaign finance reform bill does reach President Bush's desk, he has said he will sign it only if he believes it will "improve the system."