Campaign finance reform died yet another death in Congress this year. One reason is that reformers don’t think clearly about their cause. They’re so sure that money is corrupting American political life that they forget to explain how.

Consider, for instance, the “list of horribles” put out by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) in October. They didn’t call it that, of course. They called it “Campaign Finance From A to Z”–26 examples of “generous contributors getting what they want from Washington in 1997.” It was a popular list; the on-line edition of Mother Jones magazine picked it up. The CRP reformers thought the point of their list so obvious that they didn’t even state it: the measures are supposed to be so manifestly bad that nobody could possibly have voted for them unless their consciences had been deadened by large sums of cash.

Under the letter E we read, “Ethanol producer Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) [headquartered in downstate Decatur] once again staved off attempts to cut the subsidy for this corn-based alcohol. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) failed to reduce the 5.4 cent subsidy by 3 cents as part of this summer’s tax package. ADM gave $85,000 in soft money and $55,000 in PAC contributions.”

What the reformers at CRP don’t tell their readers is that there are strong arguments in favor of this subsidy. For instance, Illinois’ junior senator, Dick Durbin–an ardent supporter of campaign finance reform–supports it. If you gave him a chance he’d probably tell you all about the 18,000 Illinois jobs that depend on ethanol and about the efforts to make the program pay for itself. He might also point out that big money lobbies against ethanol too, since the oil companies don’t care to see a competitor helped out (though in this case their contributions don’t seem to have bought the vote they wanted).

Under M the reformers at CRP write, “Market Access Program. This Department of Agriculture program labeled by taxpayer groups as ‘corporate welfare’ gives private companies, trade associations, and cooperatives $90 million a year to promote their products overseas. Lawmakers failed to eliminate the program that benefits among others the owner of the Nabisco food company, RJR Nabisco, which gave $147,500 in PAC contributions.”

But the Market Access Program also has Durbin’s support. Here again there are strong arguments in its defense: It helps create area jobs, according to a report in Crain’s Chicago Business (October 27). Moreover, new federal guidelines have put program benefits off-limits to large companies, and the most any firm can be reimbursed for promotional overseas advertising and product demonstrations is $200,000.

I happen to think both programs are probably not good public policy. But I believe it’s possible to make a reasonable case that they are. Certainly they’re not transparent betrayals of the public interest, like ghost payrolling or aldermen getting loans from city contractors.

The clear implication of CRP’s list of horribles is that in every horrible instance, interested companies inserted money into the congressional ATM and got what they wanted in return. Evidently CRP thinks Durbin’s position on these programs is pure pork barrel. But if it is, then why should CRP think that he had the public interest at heart when he endorsed the McCain-Feingold bill to limit campaign spending? After all, some McCain-Feingold opponents think the bill would have favored Democrats or incumbents, and Durbin is both.

And besides, if Durbin is honestly convinced that subsidies for ethanol and overseas advertising are good public policy, then why is it so terrible for people who agree with him to spend money to support those programs? When there are two honest sides to the issues on CRP’s list of horribles, then the group’s version of campaign finance reform begins to look like an attempt to muzzle some of the participants in the public debate.

Just between you and me, the First Amendment has something to say about that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Archer Prewitt.