Reading the transcript and listening to some of the sound bites from Monday's (Sept. 8) arguments before the Supreme Court over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law again reminds that the real issue isn't about us but them; about the career politicians and not "we the people"; about perpetuating themselves in office, not doing the people's business.
I happen to be on the side of those, including Kenneth Starr and First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, who argued that people should be able to contribute whatever they want to whomever they wish in the pursuit of their political objectives. So long as those gifts are made public, voters can decide for themselves who is exercising influence over whom and vote accordingly. The idea that politicians who are unscrupulous will somehow become more virtuous if their campaign contributions are restricted is ridiculous. If politicians are corrupted by contributions above a certain level, perhaps their "price" should be listed in the congressional directory along with their college degrees, name of spouse and religious preference. Senator Glut is honest for amounts under $250,000. Congressman Greed can't be had for sums under $100,000. Put them on TV and call it "The Political Price Is Right."
The court should decide this issue on free speech grounds. If right-to-life groups and labor unions wish to solicit funds from members for the purpose of advancing their beliefs and political agenda, and spend whatever amount they choose on getting candidates who subscribe to their views elected, nothing should stop them. Group members, whether Republican or Democrat, should be free to opt out of political causes (and to keep a portion of their dues or membership fees) if they disagree with the organization's leadership. This was supposed to have happened with labor unions, not all of whose members agree with the ultra-liberal agenda many of their leaders pursue, but practically that is not always the case.
Political contributions to activist groups are sometimes the only way a person can make his or her voice heard. This demonstration of individual free speech through a larger bullhorn shouldn't be abridged by Congress or the Supreme Court. Not owning a printing press or a television station or network, what is an individual supposed to do in order to be heard above those who have such access?
But there is a greater issue than the amount of campaign contributions. It is that too many members of Congress have become careerists. The term-limits movement, which flourished a decade ago, now seems dormant, at least in the public's mind. The Founders never intended to create a class of career politicians. If members of Congress served for only a limited time, the power of money over those who are unable to resist temptation would be greatly diminished. Every member - especially every House member - knows that nonstop fund-raising is the greatest burden they carry. From the day they are sworn in (and in some cases even before that) members are on a nonstop mission to raise money for reelection. Election and reelection, not the people's business, are the primary concern of most members of Congress.
Perhaps "we the people" should reform Congress for their sake and ours. How about emulating the military, which has a sizable number of reservists? Instead of career politicians, why not establish "reserve" congressmen and senators, who would be called upon to legislate when needed and allowed to pursue real careers when not needed? Fewer politicians spending less time in Washington would mean less mischief, lower government costs and more opportunity for the truly talented and dedicated to serve. Instead of being preoccupied with themselves, reserve congresspersons would be preoccupied with and closer to their constituents. They would be more likely to legislate properly because the incentive would not be self-preservation and self-perpetuation, but doing their jobs well so they can get home to their real lives and families.
Some years ago during a previous presidential campaign, Lamar Alexander had a great slogan about Congress: "Cut their pay and send them home." A reserve Congress might have the same effect. It probably won't happen since Congress would have to vote on it. But it might if people get fed up enough.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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