The most sensible speech in the recent Senate debate on campaign finance reform was not made until it was over. A few days after the backers of the McCain-Feingold bill banning "soft money" contributions to the political parties had failed, once again, to break the opponents' filibuster, retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York rose to offer a few reflections on the experience.
With quiet irony, he remarked that "I supported the reform with only a faint sense of familiarity. Here we are, reforming the results of the last reform, a not infrequent task of Congress." He reminded readers of the Congressional Record of the long saga of such efforts, going back to the Naval Appropriations Act of 1867, "which prohibited Navy officers and federal employees from soliciting campaign funds from Navy Yard workers."
In his gentle fashion, Moynihan was instructing the younger reformers in his Democratic Party, such as Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, that we have been down this path of trying to regulate or restrict contributions many times before. He paraphrased the wise comment of former New York Times editor Max Frankel that "if we want to make significant changes with regard to how we conduct campaigns, we must look beyond limiting the flow of money into politics and rather look to limiting the candidates' need for money to pay for television time" for their commercials.
As Frankel wrote in his column, "There is no point dreaming of a law that says 'you may not' so long as the political system daily teaches the participants 'you must.' "
That sort of practical wisdom is what has been missing in the moralizing approach taken by Feingold and the supporters of the legislation he and Arizona Sen. John McCain have been pushing. When Feingold called me the other day to register his disagreement with a previous column questioning their approach, he pointed out that the original McCain-Feingold bill had included provisions for free or reduced-cost television time for federal candidates.
But the sponsors abandoned that provision rather than take on the lobbying influence of the broadcast industry--a strange decision for people who portray themselves as the scourge of "special interests."
The larger point is that by failing to recognize the reality Moynihan described, by failing to fight for free or cheap TV time, or for direct public subsidies of campaigns, or even for raising the outdated $1,000 limit on individual contributions to candidates, Feingold has made it easy for opponents to thwart his laudable efforts to get rid of the $100,000-plus corporate and union "soft money" gifts to the political parties.
Fortunately, others are exploring more realistic approaches to the problem. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, last week introduced a bipartisan bill to improve financial disclosure, raise individual contribution limits (to an indexed $3,000 per year) and cap "soft money" gifts at $60,000. The measure has the support of four other mainstream conservative Republican senators (none of whom has backed the McCain-Feingold legislation), as well as Democrats Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. With backers like that, it might actually pass.
At the same time, former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, along with newsman Walter Cronkite and a host of civic leaders, renewed their plea to television executives to give the candidates short segments of free time just before the election.
They placed newspaper ads urging that the broadcasters, who were handed licenses to the public airways worth billions of dollars, contribute five minutes a night of free time for the month before each state primary and the November general election, to be used for policy statements from the candidates or for mini-debates.
Yet another good idea comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. And this one can be put into effect by the candidates themselves.
Her proposal is that when a political aspirant launches a new radio or TV ad, the candidate simultaneously posts on his or her Web site the supporting information and sources behind every assertion in the ad. Since the advent of newspaper "ad watches," many contenders have begun to provide such documentation to reporters--helping the press assist the public in evaluating these messages. But with the growing reach of the Internet, Jamieson points out, there is no reason why that same contextual material should not be made available by campaigns directly to the voters.
None of these measures is a panacea. But they are practical--and they would help.