Paul Jacob

The campaign finance laws are not working.

There is still "money in the system." There are still people out there who if not allowed to speak in one way will speak in another. There are still people out there who endeavor to advance their political causes in a way that communicates their ideas to more than just the other people in the same room. And who are willing to spend money to do this...thereby disrupting the mythically "even" political-speech playing field that turf-protecting incumbents say they want to achieve.

But the only way to "solve" this "problem" of the uneven playing field is to eliminate political speech altogether. That is the only way to stop various speakers from propagating amounts of political speech that vary wildly with respect to the amounts of political speech propagated by other speakers. Just as it is impossible to communize economic life in the phantasmagorical manner dreamed up by the socialists, so it is impossible to communize political speech--or any sector of human activity.

What is possible, however, is to destroy across the board. If everybody is muzzled, if nobody is allowed to talk or to spend money on talking, we can certainly achieve the dream of equal--i.e., zero--political-speech opportunity for all. A well-timed spread of hydrogen bombs should do the trick.

Of course, "evening the playing field" is not necessarily or even probably the goal of those incumbents who push for ever more restrictive campaign finance regulation. Incumbents enjoy advantages over most challengers that would allow them to stay way ahead in the game even if candidates were allowed to spend only ten dollars per election cycle. It's a lot easier for the incumbents to get on the evening news. It is the incumbents who have the franking mail privilege, which lets them send printed campaign ads to constituents at taxpayer expense. It is the incumbents who have the power to legislatively bribe interest groups.

And it is, of course, congressional incumbents who passed the recent McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" that includes a provision for muzzling groups who mention the names of candidates on TV ads that air too close to election day. (TV is an important means of political communication because everybody watches TV.) Congressman Dick Gephardt has blandly conceded that such campaign finance regulation is antithetical to the first amendment and unfettered political speech--and seems to think that it's the first amendment that must be junked, therefore. Whatever you say--Dick.

Bottom line: campaign finance regulation is nothing more than a bludgeon, to be wielded against critics and opponents by whomever has the power and will to do so. We are now witnessing the inevitable results of the most recent campaign finance reform: the power plays of those in a position to wield the power.

It's the Democrats who are now trying to do an end run around CFR by enlisting the aid of independent political organizations--to "help them equalize the money battle in the upcoming campaign," according to Washington Post reporter Thomas B. Edsall. And it's the Republicans who are now trying to drag members of these independent groups before a sort of congressional Star Chamber and grill them on the question of whether, I guess, these groups really do support Democratic causes as opposed to Republican causes.

Representative Robert Ney, the Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee, is threatening to subpoena members of groups who support Democratic candidates. The members of six targeted groups have so far refused to appear before Congress to testify--and good for them. Steve Rosenthal, who heads the Partnership for America's Families, says "we will not be bullied by partisan abuse of congressional power." Good for Steve Rosenthal.

Congressman John Mica, upping the ante, wants the IRS and the Federal Election Commission to investigate groups like Rosenthal's. He says that the growth of independent political organizations that feel they have a right to speak their minds amounts to "the greatest threat to the federal election process we have ever seen." Well, hurrah. Anything that threatens the federal election process the way it is now is a damn good thing.

Democrats are threatening to lash back. They say that if Ney goes ahead with his subpoenas, they'll start investigating whether Republican leaders have ever traded legislative favors for campaign contributions. This would be like investigating the rumor that the sun shines. The Dems are just as guilty of favor-trading, of course.

As long as campaign finance regulation exists and keeps getting amplified instead of reversed, the inquisitions will never cease. Independent political groups have always had their causes and agendas, regardless of how urgently others seek to muzzle them and/or allies speaking similar messages. Anything political groups say can be interpreted as having partisan implications, whether or not the name of a candidate is mentioned in a particular paid-for TV ad or paid-for bumper sticker. The only way to keep independent groups from "disproportionately influencing" political outcomes is to shut them up entirely.

Campaign finance laws penalize everybody who benefits from the freedom to participate in political life. That includes small contributors who would never be subject to CFR limits on spending themselves but who support particular causes that they must hope will be well promoted. On net, CFR benefits only those who believe they can wield the CFR bludgeon to maintain and advance their own power.

Yes, I'm biased. I am not a neutral observer who can remain blissfully unaffected by whether and how much citizens are allowed to peacefully speak out or peacefully support those who would speak out for them. I admit that I crave freedom for myself as well as for others.

On behalf of U.S. Term Limits, I've done plenty of the congressional testimony thing and I know the deal. I’ve been on the receiving end from career politicians of both parties who regard the very idea of term limits as acutely unpatriotic. It was obvious why they wanted to know who our donors were--so that in some way, large or small, they could harm these men and women for daring to politically oppose them.

The campaign finance laws are not working. You still have some freedom to speak out for what you believe and to put your money where your mouth is. Unless and until, of course, somebody in power decides to turn you into a target.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.