To Bradley A. Smith, the handwritten sign his students taped on his office door at Capital University law school in Columbus, Ohio, says it all: "Borked," a linguistic tribute to the liberal mobilization that derailed conservative jurist Robert H. Bork's 1986 Supreme Court nomination.
Smith is this year's low-profile Bork, an election-law heretic who thinks too much money is not a problem in American politics. Tapped by Senate Republicans to fill a vacancy on the Federal Election Commission--a bureaucracy Smith could just as easily do without--Smith is now a pawn in the Beltway's campaign finance wars, his nomination on hold by the Clinton White House.
Common Cause and other pro-reform groups have scrutinized his voluminous academic writings, proclaiming him to be committed to the abolition of the very election laws his job would be to uphold. He's been denounced by editorials in The Washington Post and the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt called him a GOP front man, brought in to supply "a patina of scholarly seriousness" to justify Republican political "greed."
In an interview, Smith said he won't withdraw and said his Senate patrons, after temporarily holding up U.N. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke's confirmation in an effort to speed Smith's appointment, still want to reach a deal with the White House. But he's often given these days to quoting "Hogan's Heroes" when asked about the status of his nomination. "Like Sergeant Schultz," he said, "I know nothing."
Smith's congressional sponsor is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who as head of the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate GOP's campaign arm is the leading opponent of campaign finance reform bills on Capitol Hill. McConnell's staff first approached a reluctant Smith last fall about taking over a Republican seat on the commission held by Lee Ann Elliott. By February, Senate GOP leaders had sent his name to the White House, where it sat until late spring, when word of the choice reached reform groups.
Soon, Smith was being portrayed as a formidable academic force, "the single most aggressive advocate for deregulation of campaign finance in the academy today," according to Common Cause. Most damning in his published writings, the reform groups said, was Smith's "complete disdain" for the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act--the post-Watergate law that set up the FEC and established the system of strict contribution limits to federal candidates that is the FEC's job to enforce.
"When a law is in need of continual revision to close a series of ever-changing 'loopholes,' " Smith wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed cited by the reformers, "it is probably the law, and not the people, that is in error. The most sensible reform is a simple one: repeal of the Federal Election Campaign Act." In a policy paper for the Cato Institute, Smith called the law "profoundly undemocratic and profoundly at odds with the First Amendment."
Smith doesn't disavow those writings but he said his views have been caricatured. In calling for repeal of FECA, he said, he was writing very specifically about the contribution and spending limits in the bill--not suggesting the FEC should be abolished.
"I do believe the role of the FEC should be scaled back," he said, but it should still exist to administer the disclosure that Smith thinks should be the major purpose of campaign finance laws. "I just don't buy this idea that we have this crisis in democracy, as the reform groups would have you believe."
A foreign service veteran who spent two years in Ecuador, Smith came late to the law, after years working in managed health care. Today, he teaches courses on civil procedure and law and economics in between tours on MSNBC and Capitol Hill to talk campaign finance. Every summer, he goes to Greece to teach a class in "comparative electoral systems."
Smith insists he is an accidental activist who first turned his attention to election law under the tutelage of liberal professor--and future Clinton adviser--Christopher Edley Jr. at Harvard Law School. In 1993, the avowed "pretty partisan Republican" first started teaching at Capital University and offered to do a seminar on campaign law. A spate of law review articles followed, all arguing that a no-holds-barred free market system of campaign contributions is better than the endless search by today's political class to find ways around the strict limits that are the foundation of the current law.
So why trade in the academic bully pulpit for the life of an FEC commissioner, constrained to follow rules he's been agitating to change? "To see the sausage factory from the other side," said Smith, who allowed that he also liked the idea of sticking it to his rivals.
"I think that's what really got the reform groups freaked out," he said. "They say it's okay for me to sit in my ivory tower, but to put me on the commission would be unthinkable. That's part of what appeals to me: It would give a sense of added credibility to my work."
Bradley A. Smith
Title: Professor of law, Capital University Law School. Republican choice for Federal Election Commission.
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Kalamazoo College; law degree, Harvard University Law School.
Family: Married, two children.
Previous jobs: Legislative director and executive director, Small Business Association of Michigan; U.S. Foreign Service, posted to Guayaquil, Ecuador; assistant vice president for marketing, IBA Health and Life Assurance Co.; private law practice, Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease.
On being the center of controversy: "Getting attacked in a single weekend by Common Cause, the Brennan Center, Democracy 21 and the editorial pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post certainly helped solidify my Republican support. I went from being some guy to being their guy."
CAPTION: Federal Election Commission "should be scaled back," says would-be nominee Bradley A. Smith.