Quiet, Congress at work

Paul Jacob

5/8/2005 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

On a quiet spring morning, they're working in Washington. Working hard, as the president would say. Working hard to regulate, burden, and impede your right to communicate about politics. About them.

Congress, with an "atta boy" last go-around from the Supreme Court, is again busily re-writing the rules that determine how the campaigns they run for office ? and the campaigns against them ? will be governed.

In sports, it would be a scandal were one team (let's call them the Incumbents) to write the rules under which they and their opponents (say, the Challengers) played. Why, Congress would be outraged! And compelled to hold show hearings, mugging for the cameras and talking so tough in front of the microphones that you'd think the congressmen were on steroids.

It would be even worse if that same team, after each season, went back to re-rigging those rules.

Yet, that's American politics today . . . now that the First Amendment has been nullified by Congress's Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain-Feingold. President Bush signed the monstrosity, reversing his position while admitting his "constitutional reservations." Reservations the Supreme Court ignored when it upheld the Act. Now, the constitutional guarantee of free speech has been relegated to a relic for tourists to filter past at the National Archives a few blocks away.

Hyperbole? The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . ." Today, incumbents in Congress decide by law how much individuals may give to candidates. And how much Political Action Committees may give. And how much you may give to a PAC. And whether non-profit groups may mention a candidate's name or even show the bum's likeness anywhere close to an election. (They may not.)

Further, Congress takes upon itself supposedly "tricky" issues like whether blogs should be regulated. Or churches.

Of course, money and speech ? like water ? are known to find their way. Thus, the congressional assaults on political speech can never cease, and Congress never rest. Which is why the high court actually encouraged Congress not to stop with McCain-Feingold, but to continually tinker with the election laws to drive out any "outside" or "unregulated" new money and speech that makes it through the current maze. That is the hard legislative work engaging the Senate as America enjoys another spring.

Last election, millionaires and billionaires were able to help a number of groups, known as 527s, raise issues and state their opinions. These rich folk, by making massive contributions, allowed organizations to purchase costly TV time. The meat of the new legislation is to prevent this speech from breaking out again. If the current bill passes, donations to 527s would be limited to $32,500 ? not unlimited as in this past election. Gifts of $32,500 would thus be deemed pristine and patriotic, while spending one cent more would be corrupt and criminal.

The arbitrary nature of such limits is obvious, but often the impact on the process is not so clear. Silence is the result. Or, at least, less speech. Less speech can go unnoticed.

Look at it in economic terms. When capital cannot form in sufficient quantities to start new enterprises, few people notice the stores that haven't opened, the products that haven't been launched, or the innovations never attempted. But, despite the ignorance of the many, an economy with capital formation so restricted will stagnate.

Like our politics stagnates.

The last election was made far more interesting to voters by the ability of groups to accumulate the capital necessary to go on television and reach a mass audience. Without million-dollar donations, the liberal groups funded by George Soros and wealthy liberals ? as well as the Swift Boat Vets funded by wealthy conservatives ? would not have communicated to such a wide audience.

This round of campaign finance reform, like those before it, is designed to silence voices the political establishment doesn't want heard. Less speech is not merely the unintended consequence of these acts; when it comes to campaign finance regulation, the very goal is less speech.

Some will argue this analysis is itself too negative. After all, the legislation recently moving in the Senate bans any regulation of blogs by the Federal Election Commission. "Hooray!" you say? But this "ban" will last only as long as incumbents in Congress feel like permitting such speech. That's not the right to freedom of speech, but the offering of a privilege. It's as temporary as a press-on tattoo, and can as easily be smudged out by those in power. Congress has banned itself from regulating bloggers, but Congress clearly asserts it has the power to regulate bloggers. It's a question of timing, not principle.

The blogosphere is a growing area for campaigning and political discussion, but bloggers certainly don't threaten the re-election of incumbents in the way TV and radio ads do. Rest assured, however, that once they do "negatively" impact incumbents, Congress will be back for them. (Congress has a knack for this, as I often point out in my Common Sense e-letter.)

America has become a land in which committees and commissions in the nation's capital decide who can speak, when, where, and how much. Yet more control by self-interested political hacks is no solution at all, it's more of the problem. We need more speech, not less. We need more freedom, not less. We even need more money in politics, not less.

Money doesn't equal speech, you say? Tell that to your ad buyer and see how much TV time you get.

The campaign finance laws that have eviscerated the First Amendment are not without an official rationale. Our slippery politicians and their robed guardians in the courts justify the tyranny as a means to prevent undo influence from special interests. And, of course, the appearance of corruption in government. The reality is that our present campaign finance system hands control over political speech to the biggest, most corrupt special interest of all: career politicians in Congress.