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Whatever you do, don't tune out on the issue of campaign finance reform because it seems complex or esoteric. The House's passage of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill portends deep trouble for this constitutional republic.
This legislation is outrageous for many reasons (some to follow), but it is also illustrative of the poisonous effects of the ongoing war against the plain meaning of words in our culture.
What do I mean? Well, one of the main provisions in the bill prohibits groups from running advertisements that merely refer to a clearly identified candidate within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary (and that reach an audience that includes voters in that election).
Why is this provision so important to reformers? You would assume that its purpose would be to prevent corruption in politics caused by campaign contributions, since that is the main impetus for campaign-finance reform. But, no, the ostensible aim of the provision is to prevent the use of last-minute negative ads against political candidates. And what are negative ads?
Here's where the distortion of the English language comes into play. You would think negative ads would be those that trash a candidate personally, such as the Gore campaign's deliberate release of the DWI allegation against George Bush the last weekend before the presidential election. So surely Shays-Meehan would outlaw such chicanery. Sorry, that's not what they mean by negative.
What they mean is that you can't inform voters about a candidate's position on any issues within the last 30 or 60 days of a campaign if you refer to that candidate by name. So, for example, if a group of concerned citizens wants to inform voters that a candidate is flagrantly nonchalant about the Second Amendment, it will only be allowed to do so prior to the final 60 days of the general election. It should be underscored that these 60 days are probably the only time during which most voters are really tuned in to election issues.
Can someone please tell me how it is negative to inform voters about a candidate's stand on the issues? Excuse this optimist's momentary lapse into cynicism, but the upshot of this provision will be to proliferate rather than limit corruption. Why? Because it will permit candidates and the media to lie about their record without fear of contradiction by issue ads. When you outlaw one of the main vehicles for informing the voters, you gravely undermine the democratic process.
But don't worry. The media will still be able to speak out without restriction because these regulations don't apply to them. While some will bend over backward to bring balance to the equation, i.e., ensuring that both sides will get a fair hearing, most of the other national print and TV media will be giving you their unchecked spin. Welcome to their America, where everyone has equal free speech rights, but the media are more equal than others.
It also bears repeating that this do-gooder bill will not pass constitutional muster absent a radical change in existing Supreme Court precedent. In Buckley vs. Valeo, the Court ruled that only express advocacy for the election or defeat of a particular candidate could be regulated, but that mere references to a candidate could not. Congress may think that it has closed a soft-money legislative loophole with this bill, but it has done nothing to bridge this cosmic constitutional fissure. Congress has just abrogated its independent duty to ensure that the legislation it passes is constitutional.
The reformers' rallying cry is that political money corrupts so inevitably and universally that it is not even necessary to prove this corruption in individual cases. Yet these very same zealots absolutely bristle at the suggestion that the Clinton administration was compromised by illegal Chinese contributions generally or even by the specific relaxations of national security that appear to have been engineered as a direct result of these contributions.
The moral to emerge from the bill is that if you shout loud and long enough you will eventually prevail – especially if a scandal such as Enron serendipitously comes along that you can opportunistically use to catalyze your cause. If logic were operative in our political culture, Enron would have been one of the death knells of the campaign finance reform movement, because it undermines its driving axiom that political contributions necessarily corrupt.
We can only hope that this odious bill meets its demise in the Senate or through presidential veto.