Monday, September 27, 2004

The Hypocrisy Of The Billionaire Party


WHEN even the strongest sup porters of the Bipartisan Cam paign Finance Reform Act (BCRA), commonly known as McCain-Feingold, start violating the spirit of that law, you know it should never have been passed. And there is no better symbol of that than billionaire financier and activist George Soros.

Soros vigorously pushed for legislation to ban large contributions to political parties by corporations, unions and individuals. Yet now that the law is in place, he sees no contradiction in giving more than $12 million of his personal wealth to political advocacy groups working to defeat President Bush.

The fact that this widely hailed champion of campaign-finance reform cannot even follow his own principles speaks volumes about the movement's serious ethical and constitutional flaws.

Over the last seven years, Soros gave about $18 million to groups dedicated to changing campaign law to remove high-dollar contributions from the political process. His grants included $625,000 to Common Cause, $2.5 million to the Brennan Center for Justice, $1.2 million to Public Campaign, $125,000 to Democracy 21, $1.7 million to the Center for Public Integrity, $75,000 to the Center for Responsive Politics and $665,000 to the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

And when McCain-Feingold passed, Soros' Open Society Institute patted itself on the back. Mark Schmitt, director of the Institute's Governance and Public Policy program, praised the provision that eliminates the "soft money" loophole "through which long-prohibited corporate and labor union money, in unlimited and staggering amounts, came to directly influence the outcomes of federal elections."

But Soros apparently has no qualms about using his own $7 billion fortune to make donations in unlimited and staggering amounts to defeat President Bush and the GOP this fall.

In just a few short months in 2003, Soros pledged $5 million to America Coming Together, $4.5 million to the Joint Victory Campaign and $2.5 million to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund.

These groups are classified as "527" committees, after the tax code section that governs their activities. A 527 group can accept unlimited contributions for spending on political ads, voter-mobilization drives and other advocacy efforts as long as it doesn't directly coordinate with a political party or candidate. Concerned about a Bush-Cheney fundraising advantage, liberal activists created the 527s to run anti-Bush ads and mobilize voters.

By 2004, Soros had donated money to other new 527s — such as Harold Ickes' Media Fund. Calling the president a "danger to the world" who must be defeated, Soros to date has given an estimated $12.6 million to the liberal 527 network.

So much for campaign-finance reform.

Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity says Soros' contributions are legal but violate the reform spirit: "I have a hard time seeing what the difference is between a soft-money donor to a party and a big 527 donor, especially when both give million-dollar checks."

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a Soros grantee, also argues that Soros' vast donations run counter to the purpose of McCain-Feingold, which was "premised on ending the role of individuals doing such things."

Asked about Soros' giving, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo) observed, "It is not consistent with campaign reform." But he added an important qualifier: "It is consistent with what the Constitution says about freedom of speech."

Which brings us to the real problem with campaign-reform supporters like Soros: It's not that they can't be consistent with their policy objectives. The problem is that the policies they advocate are unconstitutional.

Political donations to candidates, parties, political action committees or 527s represent the exercise of free speech, protected by the First Amendment. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia put it, the McCain-Feingold law "cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government."

To many, George Soros' politics are controversial. Yet no matter how controversial, it is his right to voice those views and to spend his money to disseminate them.

But he ought not to have pushed for a law that restricts that right for other people.

Now that Soros has helped make the law's inherent contradictions so self-evident, it is time to repeal McCain-Feingold altogether.


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