The irony of campaign-finance reform is that the "corruption" it targets seems not to exist in any widespread sense. Studies galore have found little or no significant influence of campaign contributions on legislators' votes. Ideological commitments, party positions and constituents' wishes are what motivate the typical politician's actions in office. Aha! reformers will often riposte, the corruption is hidden, determining what Congress doesn't do--like enacting big gas taxes. But as Mr. Will notes, "that charge is impossible to refute by disproving a negative." Even so, such conspiracy-theory thinking is transforming election law into what journalist Jonathan Rauch calls "an engine of unlimited political regulation."
McCain-Feingold, the latest and scariest step down that slope, makes it a felony for corporations, nonprofit advocacy groups and labor unions to run ads that criticize--or even name or show--members of Congress within 60 days of a federal election, when such quintessentially political speech might actually persuade voters. It forbids political parties from soliciting or spending "soft money" contributions to publicize the principles and ideas they stand for. Amending the already baffling campaign-finance rules from the 1970s, McCain-Feingold's dizzying do's and don'ts, its detailed and onerous reporting requirements of funding sources--which require a dense 300-page book to lay out--have made running for office, contributing to a candidate or cause, or advocating without an attorney at hand unwise and potentially ruinous.
Not for nothing has Justice Clarence Thomas denounced McCain-Feingold's "unprecedented restrictions" as an "assault on the free exchange of ideas."
Campaign-finance reform has a squeaky-clean image, but the dirty truth is that this speech-throttling legislation is partly the result of a hoax perpetrated by a handful of liberal foundations, led by the venerable Pew Charitable Trusts. New York Post reporter Ryan Sager exposed the scam when he got hold of a 2004 videotape of former Pew official Sean Treglia telling a roomful of journalists and professors how Pew and other foundations spent years bankrolling various experts, ostensibly independent nonprofits (including the Center for Public Integrity and Democracy 21), and media outlets (NPR got $1.2 million for "news coverage of financial influence in political decision-making")--all aimed at fooling Washington into thinking that Americans were clamoring for reform, when in truth there was little public pressure to "clean up the system." "The target group for all this activity was 535 people in Washington," said Mr. Treglia matter-of-factly, referring to Congress. "The idea was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot--that everywhere they looked, in academic institutions, in the business community, in religious groups, in ethnic groups, everywhere, people were talking about reform."
Mr. Treglia urged grantees to keep Pew's role hush-hush. "If Congress thought this was a Pew effort," he confided, "it'd be worthless. It'd be 20 million bucks thrown down the drain." At one point, late in the congressional debate over McCain-Feingold, "we had a scare," Mr. Treglia said. "George Will stumbled across a report we had done. . . . He started to reference the fact that Pew was playing a large role . . . [and] that it was a liberal attempt to hoodwink Congress. . . . The good news, from my perspective, was that journalists . . . just didn't care and nobody followed up." The hoaxers--a conspiracy of eight left-wing foundations, including George Soros's Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation--have actually spent $123 million trying to get other people's money out of politics since 1994, Mr. Sager reports--nearly 90% of the spending by the entire campaign-finance lobby over this period.