Soft Money

May 2, 2002
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Congressman VernEhlers, R-Grand Rapids, says he has about had it up to here with the misinformation that has clouded the national debate about the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill.

"There's been incredible public misunderstanding about this whole issue," he told the Business Journal's ScottPayne

"I can't tell you how often I've read in the paper about how Enron has contributed to this candidate or that candidate."

Yet, he explained, Enron Corp. never has contributed a cent to any candidate. "The amount is absolutely zero," he said. "It's illegal for a corporation to contribute to a candidate. It has been illegal since 1907.

"And yet it's in the papers day after day, that so-and-so got so much money from Enron," he said.

But what about the contributions to PACs that eventually find their way from party coffers to specific candidates?

He explained that the contributions attributed to Enron actually are donations from employees of that firm, donations which Enron conceivably might encourage but cannot direct or control.

"The point," Ehlers said, "is that all the contributions were given — legally — from individuals who work at Enron. And individual contributions come under the hard money laws, which have nothing to do with all the soft money you hear so much about."

Ehlers voted against Shays-Meehan, which now is to be reconciled with the similar McCain-Feingold bill in the U.S. Senate.

"It was supposed to be an attempt to improve the current law," Ehlers said.

"First of all, the objective was supposed to be to get rid of soft money. It did not do that." He says he did support an alternate bill that would have entirely eliminated soft money, but that bill died because of opposition from Shays-Meehan supporters

"So we will continue to have soft money at the local and state level," he said, "and there are enough loopholes in the bill that I'm sure the people currently giving soft money will be able to meet their objectives."

His other problem with Shays-Meehan is what he termed its "patently unconstitutional" prohibition against organizations that receive soft money — from the political parties and groups ranging from Greenpeace to the National Rifle Association — from buying campaign advertising in the last 60 days prior to an election.

"I am confident the courts will find that unconstitutional," Ehlers said. He also is convinced that the backers of Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold believe exactly the same thing.

"They fought tooth and nail to prevent a non-severability clause from being put in the bill," he explained. Had the clause been adopted as part of the law, he explained, then a ruling against the constitutionality of the 60-day advertising prohibition would have negated the entire law.

"Now, of course, the new problem is that it's a fairly delicately balanced bill, and if the Supreme Court throws out the one aspect of the bill, then individuals, corporations and unions will be able to spend even more soft money in a totally uncoordinated manner."

What seems ironic to the congressman is that, in his view, campaign finance is not nearly as scandalous as people paint it to be.

"I'm not saying there aren't any problems with the current system, but it really isn't that bad."

He explained that the current laws stem from bills adopted almost 30 years ago in the wake of Watergate. "And those laws actually helped," he said.

"As time has passed" he said, "people have discovered ways to contribute that were not envisioned at the time the original law was passed.

"But the individual contribution limits to candidates are still in place as they were back then: $1,000 per candidate, which is even more stringent now, because it's the equivalent of 330 1974 dollars. It's the same with PAC limits of $5,000, which is now about $1,500."

He said abuses have occurred with so-called soft money contributions, but the new law will not curtail them. He said the chief problem with soft money is that it tends to flow to negative campaign advertising.

"The public believes negative ads," he said. "Therefore, negative advertising is used and that really accounts for a lot of the ads that go on the air.

"I personally have never used negative ads. I have been able to win simply because the people know me. I worked my way up step-by-step, and each step of the way I got better known by the people.

"But then you have somebody who comes out of the woodwork — who's never run for office — and they can really slam someone else with negative ads, particularly if they're wealthy, and win.

"Let me just give you a part of my campaign speech," he said, laughing.

"The real issue is not campaign finance laws but the character of the candidate. I don't care what the laws are, if you have a candidate with good character, he's going to abide by them. If you have a candidate with poor character, he's going to find loopholes in the law no matter what."

Ehlers said he felt it would be ideal if there were some way to limit the money chase.

"But the only way that I know of to do that," he said, "would be to have public financing of campaigns. But the public is overwhelmingly opposed to having a campaign financed with tax dollars."

  • Leadership Grand Rapids will honor StevenHeacock and ValerieSimmons with 2002 Distinguished Community Trustee awards next week at the group's annual scholarship fundraiser.

"This annual award is presented to a person or organization who stands out in terms of service, trusteeship and a commitment to the community," said DerrickSorles, executive director of Leadership Grand Rapids.

"Both Steven and Valerie exemplify the four platforms of the LGR program with their wealth of leadership skills, commitment to diversity, building strong community connections and looking at the community as a system," he added.

Sorles said Simmons, a partner at Warner, Norcross and Judd, has been active in the legal community and in other areas, such as education. He remarked that her commitment to the public education system was evident by the unselfish giving of her time and expertise to a number of education-related organizations.

As for Heacock, vice president of development and general counsel for Priority Health, Sorles said he has immersed himself in a variety of community activities. Also chairman of the Kent County Board of Commissioners, Heacock graduated from the first LGR class in 1986 and then chaired the LGR Executive Board in 1991-92.

The Business Journal honored Heacock in January with its 2001 Newsmaker of the Year Award for leading Kent County commissioners and administrators into new service areas Simmons and Heacock will receive their awards at The Event! on March 14 from 5-8:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Jarecki Center for Advanced Learning at Aquinas College.

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