WASHINGTON -- Two years ago President Bush, who had called it unconstitutional, signed the McCain-Feingold bill -- furtively, at 8 a.m. in the Oval Office. The law expanded government restrictions on political speech, ostensibly to combat corruption or the ``appearance'' thereof. Bush probably signed it partly because the White House, thinking corruptly, or appearing to do so, saw re-election advantage in this fiddling with the First Amendment.
And partly because the nation's newspaper editorial writers were nearly unanimous in praise of McCain-Feingold. The editorialists' advocacy of McCain-Feingold could appear corrupt: The bill increases the political influence of unregulated newspaper editorializing relative to rival voices (parties, and candidates and their financial supporters) that are increasingly restricted.
Last December the Supreme Court said there is no serious constitutional infirmity in the law because, although the Constitution says Congress shall make ``no law'' abridging freedom of speech, Congress has broad latitude to combat corruption or its appearance. There is the appearance of corruption when a legislator's views attract contributions from like-minded people, and then the legislator acts in accordance with his and their views.
Today McCain-Feingold itself does not just appear to be corrupting. It is demonstrably and comprehensively so.
Most campaign money is spent on speech -- disseminating ideas, primarily by broadcasting. McCain-Feingold's stated premise was that there is ``too much'' money in politics -- hence, it follows, too much speech. McCain-Feingold's prudently unstated premise was that legislators know -- and should legislate -- the correct quantity of speech about themselves, the proper times for it and certain restrictions on the content of it.
Such legislating may not be corrupt, but it might appear so. And appearances are the essence of ethics, as understood by Washington's ethics industry.
Perhaps the White House embraced McCain-Feingold because it doubled to $2,000 the permissible ceiling on ``hard money'' contributions crucial to the president's re-election campaign. Also, Republican national committees do better than their Democratic counterparts at raising smaller hard dollar contributions.