Campaign finance reform may boost grass roots


WASHINGTON, D.C. - We all know that whoever looks too closely at the trees can lose sight of the forest.

Something along this line has happened to those around here who make their living watching trees and forests, fields and streams, or mountains and deserts, either to extract resources from them or to guard them against such extraction. While they were concentrating on their specialties - oil drilling in northern Alaska or southern Utah, cutting roads through the national forests, requiring more miles to the gallon - events generally considered to be in somebody else's specialty have intruded.

The most obvious of these was the U.S. Senate's final passage, on the first day of spring, of the campaign finance bill best known by the names of its Senate sponsors - Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. Under the conventional classifications of the Washington cognoscenti, this is not a resource or environmental issue, which helps explains why the Sierra Club was the only major conservation group to enter the fray on its behalf. But in the not very distant future, McCain-Feingold could impact the natural world as much as any of the legislation the green groups support or oppose.

And while predicting winners and losers in these matters has ever been a fool's errand, the early betting is that the new campaign finance regimen is more likely to tip the balance toward the pro-conservation side.

Maybe. As Paul Taylor, the executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, put it, "sweeping declarations should be avoided." After all, the problems McCain-Feingold seeks to solve were effectively created by the last major campaign finance reforms almost 30 years ago. The law of Unintended Consequences has not been repealed.

But it is reasonable to assume that stricter control over the use of money will have the greater impact on those who have used more money, and that is the side of the resource extractors and their allies. "In general, the big business groups were the ones coming in at the end," Taylor said, referring to the torrents of money poured into television advertising in the final days of a campaign.

The record bears him out. In 2000, for instance, according to records kept by the Center for Responsive Politics, the forestry, mining, and petroleum industries made more than $22 million in "soft money" contributions, about 80 percent of it to Republicans. Environmental organizations gave soft money, too, but only $217,250, all to Democrats

Before anyone gets carried away with the unfairness of it all, this is by no means the only money spent on political campaigns. Soft money, also called "nonfederal money" is just the money given to national party committees for their general use. So the figures cited above do not include, for instance, the money the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation voters spends on running "issue ads," (campaign commercials in disguise) or sending an organizer into the district of a favorite candidate.

Still, the comparison holds. The other side runs pseudo-issue ads, too, and funnels money to state parties. By banning soft money (with a few minor exception), the new law * which takes affect AFTER this November's elections - is likely to disadvantage those who most relied on soft money.

In fact, by reducing, however marginally, the impact of money in politics, McCain-Feingold might, however marginally, extend the influence of people.

You remember people. They're the ones who vote, and some of them ring doorbells, hand out brochures, operate phone banks and organize their neighborhoods. At least they used to, until all that activity was overwhelmed by television commercials. Now it is just possible that old-fashioned "retail politics" under the fancier jargon of "peer-to-peer communication" will be rediscovered.

This might have happened even without a new law. Some analysts had noticed signs that voters were ignoring political TV commercials, making themselves open to other influences, such as what their neighbors think. All this could - again marginally - enhance the political clout of those who have more popular support than money. According to several recent polls, that's good news for environmentalists.

"We have the grass roots," says Margaret Conway, the Sierra Club's political director. "We're organized in every state and have volunteer networks across the country."

So they do, more than, say, the Petroleum Institute or the Forest Products Association. These, on the other hand, have more money, and as Scott Stoermer of the League of Conservation Voters acknowledges, "the money's got to go somewhere." Grass roots can be purchased. These days, almost everything is for sale. In fact, one appeal of that "peer-to-peer" approach is that the latest technology allows interest groups to target voters ever more precisely, especially for direct mail campaigns.

Some computer knows just how you differ from your neighbor in terms of what you do for fun, what magazines you read, where you go to church or don't. The political messages to you and your neighbor can be adjusted accordingly. That's one reason Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York. It cost him a lot of money.

Jon Margolis observes the doings in Washington, D.C., from Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jon Margolis

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