May 22, 2018
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Measure reeks of politics at its worst

By Steve Abbott, Special to the BDN

As the pennant race heats up, what would you think if Major League Baseball made a rule prohibiting the Red Sox from using the designated hitter against the Yankees, but allowing the Yankees to continue to use their DH against the Red Sox?

It’s an absurd scenario, of course. But as we head into the home stretch of the election season, Congress is considering changing the campaign laws to favor incumbents in the majority party by making new rules that treat unions differently from corporations.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are proposing the changes. Rep. Van Hollen is the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the organization in charge of electing Democrats to Congress. Until recently, Sen. Schumer led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the counterpart organization for Senate Democrats.

Predictably, the groups that primarily would benefit from their bill tend to support Democrats. The losers tend to support Republicans.

This disingenuous proposal came about in response to a recent Supreme Court decision that caught many by surprise. The Citizens United v. FEC decision struck down laws that limited political activity by unions, corporations and trade associations. The court ruled that corporations and unions can expressly advocate for or against candidates through ads or grass-roots activity, as long as that action is not coordinated with campaigns or political parties.

The merits of this decision can be the subject of fair debate. But regardless of your views on the Supreme Court decision, the Schumer-Van Hollen bill reeks of incumbent protection and politics at its worst.

Schumer–Van Hollen would basically intimidate people from engaging in political discourse for fear of retribution. Some congressional Democrats were concerned that the bill would jeopardize the large sum of money that unions spend on behalf of Democratic candidates (approximately $450 million in 2008). So Schumer and Van Hollen effectively exempted unions from coverage of most provisions of the bill.

For example, the CEO of a corporation that contributed to the Chamber of Commerce actually would be required to appear in an ad run by the group, whether or not the corporation agreed with the ad. Yet a threshold set in the bill would mean that union leaders would not have to appear in ads they helped fund.

And then to make sure that long-time Democratic allies such as the Sierra Club and AARP would not be affected, those groups were exempted as well.

And when faced with the threat of retaliation from the National Rifle Association, Schumer and Van Hollen exempted it, too.

So the House was left to consider a bill that would severely limit the ability of business groups, from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (America’s leading small-business group) to the Independent Electrical Contractors to participate in the electoral process, but would allow unions and big special interest groups to express support for candidates of their choosing.

The bill passed the House on what spin doctors described as a “bipartisan” vote: 217 Democrats joined by just two Republicans to provide the winning 219-206 majority.

Now, Sen. Schumer is desperately pushing the measure through the Senate so that the law will take effect for the elections this fall. So far, his partisan bill has failed to attract the support of even a single Republican senator.

This rushed, partisan approach stands in stark contrast to the last time Congress considered a major campaign reform measure. The McCain–Feingold bill arose from an exhaustive series of investigative hearings before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill had significant bipartisan support. It was signed into law by a Republican president. And, it did not go into effect until after the election year in which it passed.

Cynics would say that the only reason that Congress would make a major change to our campaign laws right before an election would be to help incumbents hold their power. In the case of the Schumer–Van Hollen bill, the cynics would be correct.

Come to think of it, Sen. Schumer is a lifelong Yankees fan. Maybe we should keep an eye on that designated hitter rule.

Steve Abbott is a former Republican _candidate for governor and former chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins.

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