McCain-Feingold Doing What Its Authors Intended

Those of us who have contended all along that “The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” better known as “McCain-Feingold,” was nothing more than an incumbent protection act, experienced an “I-told-you-so” moment recently as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that the legislation would prevent him from entering the 2008 presidential race.

McCain-Feingold was supposed to eliminate the influence of money in politics. Senators John McCain, R-AZ, and Russ Feingold, D-WI, assured us it would be so. Even Fred Thompson, himself now a presidential candidate and a co-sponsor of the legislation during his last year in the Senate, defends it to this day, saying that, “In the real world, we call it (taking money) bribery.”

President Bush irresponsibly signed this legislation with a wink and a nod to the Supreme Court, assuming that the justices would declare sections of the bill unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the emergence of so-called 527 organizations, financed by wealthy activists like George Soros, has filled the void with legal cash for their causes.

Gingrich says his legal counsel has informed him that McCain-Feingold’s criminal penalties could be brought to bear if he were to continue his association with his bipartisan public policy organization, “American Solutions,” while simultaneously launching a presidential campaign.

“The McCain-Feingold Act criminalizes politics,” Gingrich said over the weekend. “We were informed yesterday morning that if I had any communication with American Solutions after I became a candidate, it was a criminal offense…I think that basically ended the conversation. I’m not going to walk off and allow American Solutions to collapse at this point.”

Campaign finance reform is a typical example of the inability of government to solve problems. In the years after the Watergate scandal, Democrats overreacted by placing $1,000 limits on individual contributions to federal campaigns, thereby condemning candidates for federal office to begging for small donations — continually. That ridiculous limit stood for nearly thirty years, and the doubling of the amounts five years ago didn’t even keep up with inflation.

McCain-Feingold made things even worse. The tangle of rules, regulations and draconian penalties threaten every federal candidate with heavy fines and jail time for violations. Understandably, Gingrich has no desire to put himself in that kind of jeopardy.

This is a shame, because Newt Gingrich is quite possibly the greatest public policy visionary of our time. It is highly debatable whether he could have won the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the general election, but his entrance into the race would have generated the kind of interest and energy the field has needed all along.

And what of those already in the race? Consider that five of the eight Democrats running for president (Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich), as well as five of the ten Republican candidates (Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter and, of course, Mr. Incumbent Protection himself, John McCain), are all sitting members of Congress. Each was elected to represent his or her individual states or congressional districts. Instead, they are out on the campaign trail running for president. What does it say about our system that they can run for president but Newt Gingrich can’t?

What is says to me is that McCain-Feingold is doing exactly what its authors and supporters in Congress intended for it to do: protect incumbents. It not only protects incumbents running for re-election, it shields them from any conflict of interest charges when they are seeking higher office. They can accept their generous salaries for serving in Congress and then simply show up for work when and if they feel like it. If they are too busy running for president to vote on key legislation, well, that’s apparently just too bad.

I never thought I would yearn for the days of Bob Dole, but at least he had the integrity to resign from the United States Senate when he ran for president.

I was really starting to get excited about the discussions Newt Gingrich would generate within the party. America has lost a golden opportunity.