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Campaign Finance and the Fifth Estate
March 11, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

A final confrontation on campaign finance reform is about to take place.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says he is prepared to force the bill to the floor sometime before the March 22 recess. In order to expedite the legislation's final passage, Daschle says that he'll utilize all-night sessions to compel opponents to resort to a filibuster.

Proponents of campaign finance reform believe they have the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster. Conventional wisdom in the beltway predicts that something very close to the House version of the bill will pass and be sent to the president.

Political gamesmanship aside, one thing is for certain. The debate over how to improve the elective process is going to continue.

Campaign finance reform is about power. Legislating in this realm inevitably causes a shift of power to occur. But where does the power go?

Critics of the Shays-Meehan and the McCain-Feingold bills have generally focused attention on two beneficiaries of this shift of power: incumbents and the news media.

But another group is poised to gain tremendous influence over the election process if the legislation becomes law. And that's the entertainment media, the group that this writer has dubbed the "Fifth Estate."

Hollywood's influence on politics has grown quite large and a number of celebrities have become activists. A perfect example of celebrity impact on politics occurred recently in Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush was commenting on actor Alec Baldwin's visit to Tallahassee. The Florida governor quipped to reporters that Baldwin "had promised he would leave the country if my brother got elected. Well, he's back, I guess. We'll welcome him to Tallahassee."

Baldwin responded by saying, "I never made that statement, but you can tell Gov. Bush to rest assured that I'm not going to leave the country, because we have to get him out of office and we have to get his brother out of office in 2004."

There are a few more details about Baldwin's visit that deserve airing. Baldwin was in Tallahassee as a board member of the non-profit organization People for the American Way (PFAW). He was there to promote election reform.

PFAW finances its activities with tax-deductible contributions. Florida has a primary campaign in progress and a general election looming. A statement that specifically recommends the removal of a candidate from office is inappropriate and may even be illegal for a non-partisan, non-profit organization such as PFAW to utter.

The remark "we have to get him [Gov. Jeb Bush] out of office" is an explicit campaign statement. Predictably, the statement bounced out of every news media outlet, as most celebrity comments do, merely because of their star connection.

In addition, celebrity status has tremendous dollar value. By limiting the ability of ordinary spokespeople to respond, those without fame are put at a serious disadvantage.

Of course, Hollywood celebrities are happy to have such power at their disposal. They can direct the equivalent of millions of dollars' worth of "soft money" publicity to the candidates of their choice.

Meanwhile, grassroots organizations are muzzled by new restrictions imposed in the name of reform. This is because of a provision of the legislation that prevents certain political broadcast advertising in the 60 days prior to an election.

Last year an organization called The Creative Coalition sent a petition to every member of the U.S. Senate to promote campaign finance reform. The Creative Coalition is a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate arts and entertainment industry leaders on public policy issues. Alec Baldwin's brother, William, is the current chairman.

In the organization's petition, over 70 artists and entertainers pledged to "not raise money for, contribute money to, or have their names used in connection with the raising of money for the campaign of any candidate for federal office who does not embrace the McCain-Feingold principles."

A tactic such as this could aptly be called campaign finance extortion. Those who seek to improve the ethics, accountability and participation of ordinary citizens in the campaign process need to take another look at the inequalities and illegalities that are inherent in the legislation of their making.

President Bush also needs to reassess his duty when the bill arrives at the White House door. This would be a good time to use a little of his political capital.

If the president is to honor his oath of office, only one course of action is acceptable ­ a gratifying, constitutional and expeditious veto that surpasses any triangulating or hedging on the issue.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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