In response to a recent column about campaign finance reform, certain e-mail hecklers charged that I was ducking the constitutional issues. With this effort, let me try to put that misperception to bed.
First, there seems to be a rather widely held assumption that opponents of campaign finance reform are being disingenuous about their motives. Their real purpose, according to this thinking, is to preserve the status quo -- their power base -- and their constitutional objections are just lofty window dressing to disguise their sinister designs. To the contrary, the constitutional objections are valid and go to the core of our free society.
Reform opponents argue that outlawing (criminally, no less) issue ads by interest groups that mention federal candidates during the last 30 (primary elections) and 60 (general elections) days of a campaign is a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
Reformers counter that money is property, not speech, and so the First Amendment isn’t involved -- or do they? Well, some of the reformers certainly say that, but the politicians voting for the measure themselves essentially admit that the bill implicates speech.
These politicians admit the nexus between money and speech when they say they want to reduce political advertising and negative ads by outside interest groups. Note: political and negative ads are the end product -- the speech itself, not the money used to buy them. Their clearly stated purpose, then, is to reduce a certain kind of political speech during the most critical period in a campaign.
But we needn’t rely on the politicians’ admission. Those who contend that these expenditures are speech ignore the reality that the only purpose of those expenditures is to accomplish the goal of political communication. In modern society, such expenditures are indispensable in enabling a candidate to communicate his positions to the voters. The only reason to limit such expenditures is to limit political speech.
Some reformers will expressly admit that their bill limits protected speech, but say that such limits are justified to serve other compelling federal interests -- to equalize the economic power of various interests and to reduce corruption in the political process. They maintain that limiting expenditures will reduce the unfair communicative advantage that money affords the wealthy. The spending restrictions will give equal voice to the less well-heeled interests.
But if we go down this road, where will it end? As others have questioned, under such reasoning, wouldn’t we be able to rationalize speech restrictions on other than economic grounds? Since some speakers (Alan Keyes) are more articulate than others (John McCain), should we restrict Keyes from political speech in the months immediately preceding elections?
Worse still, trying to equalize influence this way undermines a much higher purpose, which is to maximize information to the voters. So even if there were merit in trying to equalize influence (which there isn’t), it would not be worth the cost: a less-informed electorate.
This effort to equalize also discounts non-economic factors at play in the electoral process, such as incumbency. And on that point, is there any better way to offset the advantages of incumbency than through heavy expenditures by the challenger?
The most remarkable thing about all of the reform mania is that it is all based on the flawed assumption that political contributions (and expenditures) inevitably corrupt the political process. How? Through so called quid pro quo arrangements, where politicians receiving large contributions reward those making the contributions and expenditures rather than acting primarily in the public interest.
But the reformers never produce any specific evidence of such corruption; they just say it exists because money is necessarily corrupting. “It is because it is and we are all corrupted by it,” they intone gleefully. But this conveniently ignores the fact that most people and interests contribute and expend on behalf of candidates who share their ideological viewpoint, without expecting anything in return.
Interestingly, the two major catalysts for campaign finance reform have been Watergate and Enron. But for all the corruption of each, neither really involved quid pro quos. At least Enron appeared to receive no quid pro quos from the Bush administration. Yet both of these events have fueled reform measures that would have had absolutely no effect in preventing them.
Such irrational behavior on the part of congressmen operating under the pressure of politically correct reform measures underscores the fundamental principle of American statecraft that the rights of the minority, in this case, free speech, must be protected from the tyranny of the majority.