Campaign Finance Flip

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"MY FEAR," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said at the Republican debate this month, "is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad." Mr. Romney has turned campaign finance reform into one of his stump villains -- which represents a dramatic and wrongheaded turnabout from his days running for office in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Romney called for spending limits on candidates and a 10 percent tax on campaign contributions for state elections to finance publicly funded campaigns. Massachusetts Romney wanted to abolish political action committees because they wield too much power, and he bemoaned the influence of money in politics.

Presidential candidate Romney vows that, if elected, "a top priority will be to push for the repeal of this deeply flawed measure," referring to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In an essay posted on the Townhall blog last month, Mr. Romney denounced the law as a product of "Washington's back-scratching political class" that "impos[ed] unprecedented restrictions on the political activities of everyday Americans."

Back-scratching? One key provision of

McCain-Feingold ended the obscene practice of elected officials soliciting huge "soft money" donations from companies they regulated. You can't get much scratchier than that.

Restrictions on everyday Americans? Another key part of the law dealt with sham issue advertising -- the barely disguised campaign commercials that stopped just short of calling for the election or defeat of particular candidates. These weren't, for the most part, funded by "everyday Americans" -- they were the creation of corporate America and labor unions trying to get around the law that prohibits them from making political contributions.

Mr. Romney contended that the law has squelched speech by some nonprofit groups close to Election Day. But such groups are affected only if they accept corporate or union money; they remain free to run ads as long as they don't mention a candidate for federal office by name, and they can run whatever ads they want as long as they pay for them through political action committee funds.

"The original intent of McCain-Feingold was to reduce the role of money and special interests in our political system. But on this too it has been a failure," Mr. Romney wrote. "Political spending has been driven into secret corners and more power and influence has been handed to hidden special interests."

No doubt, the current campaign finance system is flawed; no doubt, some spending has been shifted into areas exempt from disclosure. But if Mr. Romney thinks the system was less corrupt when lawmakers were able to phone up special interests and ask them for seven-figure checks, he is wrong. If he thinks the system was less corrupt when corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals could spend unlimited amounts on campaign commercials barely disguised as "issue" advertising, he is wrong about that as well. Massachusetts Romney had it right.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company