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Judging a book by its cover

By Brad Keena
web posted February 18, 2002

At a dinner party honoring present and former members of his staff, retiring Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK) arrived with friend and colleague Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), fresh from a vote on one of numerous amendments to a Campaign Reform bill whose activity would keep Members up until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. Seated next to me, Graham, responded when I asked Largent if we would lose the final vote. "We're going to win," interjected Graham, a friend of Sen. John McCain and supporter of his Campaign Finance Reform (CFR) legislation.

Indeed, Graham's prediction was quite accurate. That he and Largent disagree on an issue that has made so many headlines over the past seven years is quite telling. Both are genuine in their desire for some kind of reform; however, at various times – and like most Members on this issue – both have had their honesty and even their patriotism questioned by hotheads, blowhards, crackpots, screwballs, quacks, and even naive constituents. A constituent who called CFR opponent Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-CO) this week was surprised to learn Schaffer's vote was cast, not on behalf of what the constituent called "special interests," but on conscience. The constituent was equally surprised to learn that Mr.

Schaffer, in fact, is term limited, and therefore not running for reelection. [The media has failed to remind readers and viewers that Campaign Reform co-sponsor Meehan reneged on a similar commitment to step down when his self-imposed three-term limit concluded at the end of 2000.] That the CFR bill finally approved by the Congress will accomplish little of what the media promises, I can attest. That it is the single most poorly understood piece of legislation to pass both Houses since the Clean Air Act, I can promise.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., left, embraces Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., on Capitol Hill on February 14 prior to a news conference to discuss campaign finance reform
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., left, embraces Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., on Capitol Hill on February 14 prior to a news conference to discuss campaign finance reform

And that's the point. The problem with the Campaign Reform debate isn't that it has divided members of the same party, or even that its product portends potential Constitutional pitfalls. The problem is that the media and the public have ascribed to the title of a piece of legislation the false promise of reform. So in love are the media with legislation under the monikers "McCain-Feingold" (after Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold ) and "Shays-Meehan" (after Representatives Chris Shays and Martin Meehan), they have failed, as an institution, to inform readers and viewers that neither of these versions of Campaign Reform resemble the bills introduced under the same names in the previous sessions of Congress.

As usual, the media – and much of the public that form opinions based on media reports – continue to judge the book by its cover. In the 1980's, the Clean Water Act was about everything but clean water (history has since indicted it as a Pandora's Box of terrible and unnecessary regulations).

But with the media failing to do its homework and instead ascribing an untold wealth of virtues to its title, constituents chimed in by the thousands, equating any member who dared vote against the Clean Water Act as being against clean water. The same was done with the Clean Air Act.

"Keena, you're being mean-spirited and nasty toward reform," I have been told. "What reform?" I reply, reminding them that supporters of the latest McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan monstrosity successfully manipulated a delay in soft-money restrictions until after this year's elections. [Also, I stress, how in the world are groups like the National Right to Life going to raise money now that this debate is finally over? I never get a response to that last comment – I just get in trouble for saying it.]

Cynical as I am about the motives of some Members – or even organizations – on this issue, I urge restraint on both sides. Yes some Members of both sides of the issue did, in fact, vote with pernicious intent. However, the majority acted in good faith, motivated either by a genuine desire (Mr. Graham) to accomplish real reform, or by a heartfelt desire (Mr. Schaffer) to keep Congress from further empowering incumbents in the form of odious legislation misidentified by gullible reporters as an effort that will soon accomplish Campaign Finance Reform.

Contact Brad Keena at jbkeena@hotmail.com.

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