Steve Chapman

When a political party that has been a minority suddenly gains power, the change can be intoxicating. After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994, you didn't need a Breathalyzer to detect the effect. It became obvious the instant they started batting around ideas for amending the Constitution -- everything from banning flag desecration to inventing new rights for crime victims.

None of these went anywhere. Even the hyperkinetic Newt Gingrich soon realized he had his hands full with the normal business of legislating. Sobriety eventually returned.

But Democrats are susceptible to the same peril. For years, they (along with a few Republicans, notably John McCain) have clamored for laws to purge campaigns of the baneful influence of money. Now, heady with their unaccustomed majority status, they have decided mere laws are not enough. They want to amend the Constitution.

The proposed amendment, sponsored by Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Tom Harkin of Iowa, would overturn Supreme Court decisions that limit Congress' power to regulate the funding of political campaigns. The senators are right about one thing: The "reforms" they envision cannot be reconciled with the Constitution -- particularly that passage about free speech and free association. So if their ambitions cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment, too bad for the First Amendment.

Their discontent dates back to the Watergate era, when Congress tried to cure corruption by putting tight limits on political contributions and expenditures. In their zeal, lawmakers paid no heed to critics who said the restrictions would impoverish public understanding by impeding communication.

But the critics were vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the First Amendment, candidates are free both to spend as much as they choose and to contribute unlimited amounts to their own campaigns. It also said citizens have the right to spend as much as they choose to spread their own views about candidates.

"Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution," the court held. "A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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