Trying to reform the unreformable?

In 2002, over GOP opposition, campaign-finance reformers, spurred on by Democrats, succeeded in passing a law restricting the kind of federal campaign fund-raising at which Republicans traditionally excelled.

That the law would be ineffectual was foreordained because the lawmakers were trying to regulate something _ political speech _ that can’t be effectively regulated and probably shouldn’t be.

A loophole was bound to appear, and in the 2004 campaign a big one did, unregulated “527s,” named after their chapter in the tax code, that could raise and spend unlimited amounts on issue advertising and get-out-the-vote campaigns. While it was a 527 that funded the devastating “Swift Boat” ads against John Kerry, the Democrats got significantly more of the $420 million in 527 money raised in that election cycle.

This year, the parties reversed positions, and it was the Republicans, over Democratic objections, calling for more campaign-finance regulation, which they narrowly succeeded in doing in the House this week, 218-209. The bill would bar business and labor contributions to 527s and limit individual donations to $30,000 a year total.

It is a simple if inconvenient fact that to run a meaningful political campaign takes money and the democratic process would be aided by making it easier, not harder, for candidates to raise it. Regulatory red tape causes candidates to spend far too much time soliciting campaign donations.

Where campaign-finance regulation best serves the voters is anything that expedites full, timely and accessible disclosure of who is giving to whom and how much. The amounts don’t matter so much as the identity of the people giving them.

Repeated attempts at reform have largely failed in their two main goals _ to curb spending and to reduce the influence of big money. Instead, regulation has pushed campaign finance into channels further removed from the traditional organs _ the national parties, for example _ of electoral politics.

If the 527 limits become law, some campaign observers believe the money will only move to other, less-regulated entities, including tax-exempt 501(c)4s, which do not have to identify their donors.

And that means that after the 2008 election cycle, when the hydraulic force of campaign contribution meets the vacuum of candidate need, the reformers will be back seeking still more reforms.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)