Proponents of campaign finance schemes, such as the media-hyped McCain-Feingold bill, are appalled. They dislike the quantity and the quality of political speech in America. Their reform efforts, fortunately, are stymied by the Constitution.
As the Supreme Court has observed: "The First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one's political views is wasteful, excessive or unwise." Yet some politicians, aghast at "losing control" of elections (the presumption being that election should be theirs to control), persist in trying to regulate issue advocacy and other independent expenditures by private citizens and groups. That is the thrust of the McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan "reform" bills.These so-called reformers' apoplexy is heartfelt. As Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wis., explained earlier this year: "It upsets me when (independent expenditures) don't fit the type of approach I like to have."
His chagrin is not uncommon. Like many conservatives, I am frequently upset by the liberal media's issue advocacy and (primarily Democratic) candidate endorsements. Politicians would prefer to control all the speech in proximity to an election that could conceivably sway voters.
Where McCain-Feingold proponents and opponents part company is that the latter (including me) do not believe that public officials should be insulated from criticism, nor should we have the power to quiet the voices of private citizens and groups who wish to participate in our democracy through issue advocacy and other forms of political speech.
The McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan bills severely, and unconstitutionally, impede the ability of citizens, groups and parties to participate in our democracy. They prohibit any broadcast communication in the two months preceding an election that mentions a candidate's name, unless the citizens running the ad first registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and conformed to a litany of burdensome regulations.
This would be a gift to incumbents because we are always in session during those 60-day blackout periods and even simple exhortations to the public to call us and lodge an opinion on a particular issue before the Congress would, under these "reform" bills, be subject to FEC restrictions. Additional restrictions would apply year-round to any communication by a citizen group, which the FEC deemed to influence an election.
These "reform" bills also take aim at the political party committees by banning a purported evil: "soft" money. This would effectively stifle these democratic institutions and thereby further enhance the power of labor unions, the media and every other entity that influences the political environment in our nation. No good would come of it.
Where the Supreme Court sees core constitutional freedom, the reformers see loopholes. Whereas America's founders favored liberty as the best palliative for "special interest" influence, the reformers would restrict everyone's liberty to participate in our democracy. And where the reformers see obscene levels of spending on elections ($3.89 per eligible voter on the 1996 congressional races), others like myself see a nation of 270 million people with competing interests and political passions spending modest sums to amplify their voices in accordance with the First Amendment freedom granted to all Americans.
Next year, the reformers will again decry special interests, legalized bribery (an oxymoron) and the "money chase." They will tout the curative powers of "reform" even though their proposals would trash America's premier political reform: the First Amendment. This is an instance where the proposed cure is worse than the alleged disease.