Court Keeps 'For Sale' Tag on Politicians

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry may be off the hook. Kerry, considered by many the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently took some heat for grabbing nearly a million dollars in "soft money" contributions to beat the Mc-Cain-Feingold campaign finance reform law start date last November. The law is supposed to curb the massive amount of soft money donations mostly from corporations, labor unions, trade associations, high-powered lobbyists, and wealthy individuals that Democrats and Republicans hungrily snatch at to bankroll campaign ads and get-out-the vote drives.

The ruling by a Republican majority three-judge federal appeals court struck down the parts of the law that prohibited corporations and unions from piling hunks of soft money into campaigns. This virtually renders the criticism of Kerry and other big money politicians moot. But even before the appeals court torpedoed the law, Democrats and Republicans had waged a stealth campaign to subvert it. A high-powered assortment of White House operatives, top gun lobbyists, and Democratic and Republican campaign committee staffers had formed 501c4 tax-exempt foundations. The organizations bore innocuous titles such as Progress for America, New Democratic Network, and the Democratic State Party Organization. As tax exempts they would not have had to disclose who or where they got their money from, or how they could spend it.

The Federal Election Commission also did much to aid and abet the Republicans and Democratic national committees dodge the soft money bullet. It proposed to let them spend as much money as they pleased on congressional and presidential candidates as long as there was no direct connect between the committees and the candidates they bankrolled. They could easily beat this requirement by setting up legions of shadow committees that would funnel corporate and union money for voter registration drives, advertising, and party building activities. Mc-Cain-Feingold also did not ban state and local party organizations from raising limited amounts of soft money contributions for local races in states that don't prohibit it.

The judges also dumped the provision that banned special interest groups from airing so-called "issue" ads. These ads are geared to stoke voter emotions and fears to hammer a candidate on a controversial issue. They often force Democrat and Republican incumbents and challengers to openly support or oppose a single issue such as school prayer, abortion, gun control, tighter health and safety, environmental, or corporate regulations as a condition for getting the backing of, or being targeted by, a partisan political group with unlimited soft money. The defeats of long-term Democrat incumbents Georgia Congressperson Cynthia McKinney and Alabama Congressperson Earl Hilliard last November were frightening examples of this sleazy practice.

Their campaigns were marred by bitter charges that outside political groups with Republican ties earmarked McKinney and Hilliard for defeat because of their perceived pro-Palestinian tilt. Hilliard and McKinney backers screamed that they dumped wads of money into the campaigns of their relatively unknown opponents. If unregulated campaign money is used to oust incumbents (or challengers), as the McKinney and Hilliard camps claimed, solely because they take an undesirable stance on a single issue, it will make politicians gun shy about speaking their mind on any issue they think will put them on a Republican or Democratic soft money hit list.

Then there's the presidential race. Even as he reluctantly signed the law, Bush publicly mused that parts of the law were unconstitutional. Bush had one eye on his own gargantuan fund raising efforts. In 2000, he raised more than $100 million from private contributors. Shadow committees and tax-exempts and the gutting of the law swing the door even wider open for Republican corporate giving. This could inflate his total take to $200 million or more in 2004. Meanwhile, the nine Declared Democratic presidential contenders must duke it out with each other to squeeze what they can from union and corporate coffers. The estimate is that one of them must raise $20 to $25 million by year's end to be considered a serious candidate. Even this is a pittance of what's needed to unseat a cash-bloated incumbent.

Finally, the court ruling, if it stands -- and there's no reason to think that the Supreme Court will nix the decision -- could deal a crippling blow to the move to enact a federal "Clean Money, Clean Elections" public financing system. This system is already in place in Arizona and Maine. It gives state and local candidates in those states greater access to sizeable amounts of public money to compete with corporate and fat cat donors.

Ripping the guts out of the campaign finance reform as the court did will further convince the public that politics is a dirty, big money business, and that politicians are for sale to the highest bidder. But then again, what's new?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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