Taking Liberties: Campaign Finance Reform

Article excerpt

Recently the general counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union appeared at a forum to discuss campaign finance reform. Joel Gora argued that any restriction on political expression is a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. He believes that individuals, political action committees and corporations should be free to spend as much money as they wish to influence the outcome of an election. According to the New Yorker, Gora contended that campaign finance reform would regulate "people's right to express their opinion. Issue advertising is the core to the First Amendment. It's people running an ad in favor of campaign reform or against it, in favor of pro-choice or against it, or whatever the issue might be.... You limit that, you violate the First Amendment."

Upcoming congressional hearings will examine alleged illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee and President Clinton's re-election campaign and, to a lesser degree, allegations made against Republicans. These hearings should lead to laws that will curb the influence of money on the political process. But don't count on it.

Gora is a veteran of the fight against campaign-finance reform (he was a plaintiff lawyer in a 1976 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court wiped out many of the post-Watergate reforms), and he advocates unlimited spending in campaigns, a position favored by groups and individuals eager to shape policies beneficial to them. Says Gora: "If you limit the amount of money you can spend on your message, you've limited your ability to communicate the message itself."

This is a strong First Amendment argument. It is also dead wrong. Gora's argument focuses exclusively on one side of the phrase we cherish, "liberty and justice for all." Liberty is to be cherished, but my liberty is not absolute. My liberty can impinge on your justice, and my justice can undermine your liberty. The task of a democracy is to try to balance liberty and justice.

The 1996 campaign sparked a demand that we curb the obscene influence that money exercises over politics. A political action committee is now limited to giving $5,000 to a candidate; an individual contribution is limited to $1,000. But there are no limits and very little control over the money that PACs and individuals can give to political parties. This is the so-called soft money. The problem with soft money is that it allows party officials to spend unlimited sums on campaigns that quite obviously will benefit individual candidates.

The advice that circulated during the Watergate era was "Follow the money." In this year's postcampaign discussion the question is "Where's the money? …