Politics

Campaign Reformers, Drunk on Power

Is their next target the Constitution?

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When a political party that has been a minority suddenly gains power, the change can be intoxicating. After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994, you didn't need a Breathalyzer to detect the effect. It became obvious the instant they started batting around ideas for amending the Constitution‚ÄĒeverything from banning flag desecration to inventing new rights for crime victims.

None of these went anywhere. Even the hyperkinetic Newt Gingrich soon realized he had his hands full with the normal business of legislating. Sobriety eventually returned.

But Democrats are susceptible to the same peril. For years, they (along with a few Republicans, notably John McCain) have clamored for laws to purge campaigns of the baneful influence of money. Now, heady with their unaccustomed majority status, they have decided mere laws are not enough.

They want to amend the Constitution.

The proposed amendment, sponsored by Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Tom Harkin of Iowa, would overturn Supreme Court decisions that limit Congress' power to regulate the funding of political campaigns. The senators are right about one thing: The "reforms" they envision cannot be reconciled with the Constitution—particularly that passage about free speech and free association. So if their ambitions cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment, too bad for the First Amendment.

Their discontent dates back to the Watergate era, when Congress tried to cure corruption by putting tight limits on political contributions and expenditures. In their zeal, lawmakers paid no heed to critics who said the restrictions would impoverish public understanding by impeding communication.

But the critics were vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the First Amendment, candidates are free both to spend as much as they choose and to contribute unlimited amounts to their own campaigns. It also said citizens have the right to spend as much as they choose to spread their own views about candidates.

"Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution," the court held. "A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached."

Subsequent measures have foundered on the same rocks. The 2002 McCain-Feingold law made it illegal to use corporate funds for radio or TV spots that even mention a candidate for federal office within 60 days of an election. This year, though, the court said that unless such commercials are clearly campaign ads in disguise, they may not be banned. When the purpose of a message is in question, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, "we give the benefit of doubt to speech, not censorship."

Not Schumer and Harkin, who are joined in their crusade by Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. The amendment would give Congress complete authority to regulate "the raising and spending of money, including the setting of limits," for any federal campaign.

The most obvious travesty is that the amendment would repeal the First Amendment as it relates to campaign finance. This would be the first time in our history that we altered the Constitution to curtail liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.

It would also have the effect, not accidental, of protecting incumbent members of Congress from being unseated at the polls. Whatever else our leaders may try to achieve through campaign finance laws, you can be sure their paramount objective will be ensuring they stay in office.

Such restrictions are an easy way to accomplish that end in the hallowed guise of fighting corruption. Since they have numerous ways to keep their names in front of voters without spending money, incumbents have little to lose from spending limits. Challengers generally can't win votes unless they can deliver their message to voters, which requires sums of money that campaign reformers hope to deny them.

Fortunately, the amendment has dim chances of being enacted. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in each house, and even McCain-Feingold didn't get that.

But the effort should serve two invaluable purposes. Democrats in Congress will learn the limits of their new power, and the public will gain a new appreciation of why the power of Congress needs limits.

COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. But … but … the Democrats said they would clean up corruption if they got in power. So this must be about reducing corruption, right?

    /snark

  2. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Specter–who recently called Buckley v. Valeo the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott (http://www.campaignfreedom.org/blog/ID.285/blog_detail.asp)–has done this. He introduced this same thing back in 1997. Back then it got 38 votes.

  3. Yes…Chuck (you know what that rhymes with) Schumer. A truly vile, power-hungry scumbag. He is the ultimate example of a politician who knows that he is better than you, and fuck you if you think that’s wrong, peasant.

  4. The demos are just doing the same kind of things they did before 1994.Remember the 40 years before 1994?The feds are now in parts of our lives most could not have imagined in 1960.

  5. But … but … the Democrats said they would clean up corruption if they got in power. So this must be about reducing corruption, right?

    No, no. You have it all wrong. They’re first going to end the war… uhh, well then they’re going to impeach Bu…

    Oh, that didn’t happen either. At least they’ll… condemn the Armenian Genocide and pass a resolution condemning Rush Limbaugh!

    But hey, at least teeth-less, stupid fucking gestures don’t affect my freedom…

  6. “…the restrictions would impoverish public understanding by impeding communication”

    Actually, the biggest impediment to public understanding are the narrow limits to acceptable debate imposed by the corporate MSM.

  7. Actually, the biggest impediment to public understanding are the narrow limits to acceptable debate imposed by the corporate MSMis that most people don’t give a shit.

    There, fixed…

  8. If Arlen Specter were hit by a meteor today, I’d rethink my atheism. I despise that SOB.

    Apologies to Mrs. Specter, of course.

  9. Thank you for reminding to NEVER, EVER, consider voting for McCain.

  10. Well, McCain Feingold didn’t work because of that pesky First Amendment. So we have to make an exception for political speech and writings. Why? Because political speech is so important it must be controlled and limited by the ruling elite.

    That is what the argument, reduced to its basics, is. If there is a way for you to be more insulted, please tell me about it.

  11. I don’t think amending the Constitution is a good idea, I just think the original notion that money = speech is flawed. That formulation means that billionaires have more free speech than the poor, which I’m sure sounds just dandy to libertarians, but, to my mind, actually decreases the functionality of the 1st amendment.

  12. How does the fact that someone with more resources has, ipso facto, more resources to spend distributing their speech decrease the “functionality” of the First Amendment?

    Does that fact that rich people can afford more guns decrease the functionality of the Second Amendment? Ditto for lawyers and the Fifth Amendment?

    It seems to me that limitng the exercising our rights only to the extent that the poorest among us may do so would put a real dent in the functionality of the Bill of Rights.

  13. Of all the things that our tax money is wasted on, the one that I find the most offensive is propaganda, especially the money that gets paid out to politicians as “federal matching funds” for their campaigns.

    I remember an article in Reason back in the early 1980’s, I think it was, titled “how the donkey and the elephant turned into pigs”, all about campaign funding at our expense.

    -jcr

  14. I kind of like the idea of corporations not being allowed to contribute to political campaigns, since corporations can’t vote. Take away the federal matching funds and the corporate contributions (which usually go to both approved parties as protection money), and there wouldn’t be a whole lot of money corrupting those campaigns anymore.

  15. “Does that fact that rich people can afford more guns decrease the functionality of the Second Amendment? Ditto for lawyers and the Fifth Amendment?”

    Kind of a spurious arguement as far as the guns go. A rich person might own many guns, but could only “use” a limited number of them at one time unless he hires an army, which would raise some constitutional red flags I would think.

    As for lawyers, not sure where your comment came from there. Owning or paying for more lawyers has little or nothing to with the 5th Amendment. Though I’m quite sure there have been cases where rich folks have been able to pay their teams of lawyers enough money to get them out of a jam (read O.J. Simpson).

    But with money=speech, it’s painfully obvious that a wealthy person is going to get more in the way of influence with their “speech” than someone with less “speech” further down the economic ladder.

  16. I kind of like the idea of corporations not being allowed to contribute to political campaigns, since corporations can’t vote.

    Except that the corporations the politicians most desperately want to limit are the membership corporations (NRA, AARP, Common Cause, Sierra Club, MALDEF, ACLU, NAACP, NOW, Planned Parenthood, etc.) that exist in part to give their members a say in the political process.

    But with money=speech, it’s painfully obvious that a wealthy person is going to get more in the way of influence with their “speech” than someone with less “speech” further down the economic ladder.

    But what will that influence accomplish? The only reason to raise campaign contributions is to buy advertising opportunities. Those ads educate voters on what the politicians think on the issues. “Attack ads” are doubly educational since they inform you about the politician attacking as well as the target.

    If George Soros buys a nationwide TV spot to tell the American people that Hillary believes in gun control and socialized medicine, that would make casting a ballot much easier for voters on both sides of those issues.

  17. The only way to end the corruption in Washington is to give power back to the states and to the individual citzens. Any bill supposedly designed to fight the corruption in Washington which does nothing to strip Washington of any of the powers it has claimed above and beyond those specificly granted it in the Constitution is a bit of misdirection at best.

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