The Campaign Reform Ruse; Finance Bill Is an Assault on Right to Free Speech

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Even as U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert schedules a Feb. 12-13 floor debate and vote on the campaign-finance legislation, the forces of government suppression are fast at work to ensure silence on public, political debate. The constitutional stakes are high, and it's time for clarity as the nation's lawmakers consider their options.

The Enron debacle, held up by the "axis of reform" of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as the Tammany Hall of campaign finance corruption, is actually no example at all. The quid pro quo "smoking gun" of White House and congressional action benefiting the now-bankrupt corporate giant in return for millions in campaign contributions has not materialized. Further, the Enron dollars in question are hard money contributions given directly to Republican (and Democrat) candidates, while the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan legislation would ban so-called "soft money" contributions to political parties - an entirely different proposition.

The best thing that can be said about the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan legislation is that the nation will ultimately learn a lesson in the limits of constitutional free speech. The all-out assault by so-called reformers promises treatment for the symptoms of electoral abuses at the expense of the First Amendment. The sad but inevitable truth is that congressional efforts may well wind up in our nation's courts.

Campaign contributions, and the ability of individuals to speak out on issues, are political speech - the most protected of all our First Amendment free-speech rights. The Supreme Court has said that reasonable campaign contribution limits do not offend free speech. Equally clear, however, is that limits on advocacy advertising, independent expenditures by individuals and cut-off times for speaking out on the nation's airwaves place free speech protections in jeopardy. Therein lies the rub for the McCain-Feingold "reformers."

Provisions in the House and Senate versions of the bill banning unions and organizations from running issue advocacy ads 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary are blatant censorship of free speech. Federal election laws requiring disclosure of donors who give money for advocacy ads, like their candidate counterparts, are a better course, allowing for the light of public scrutiny on not only what is said, but who is saying it. …