Remember the Lincoln Bedroom controversy? How about Al Gore
raising funds in a Buddhist temple? Or Chinese agents seeking to buy
influence among American politicians?
A distant memory, all.
After what the nation's been through this year with Monica
Lewinsky, it is hard to imagine a mere campaign-finance scandal
eliciting anything more than a protracted yawn.
Here's proof: The election money fiasco of 1996 wasn't enough to
motivate Congress to pass even a watered-down reform package two
years later. And Attorney General Janet Reno, mired in arcane
election-law legalese, seems perpetually reluctant to appoint a
special counsel to get to the bottom of questionable White House and
But campaign-finance reform isn't dead. It's simply taking a
different route through Washington.
Now it is the US Supreme Court's turn. The justices are
considering taking up two cases that could facilitate a rewrite of
its landmark decision of 1976 that laid the groundwork for the way
politicians raise and spend campaign money.
An announcement of whether the court will hear one, both, or none
of the cases is expected soon, perhaps as early as today.
One case is a Cincinnati ordinance that limits to $140,000 the
amount a city council candidate can spend in a campaign. The other
is an Arkansas state law that restricts donors from contributing
than $300 to a statewide candidate and $100 to a local candidate.
Both laws were struck down as unconstitutional by federal appeals
What both laws were attempting to do, in different ways, was limit
the potential influence of special-interest money on candidates and
Free speech violation?
But appeals court judges decided they went too far, abridging the
free-speech rights of candidates to spend as much as they want to
election in Cincinnati, or violating the rights of contributors in
Arkansas to support their candidates with large political
"There are going to be times when people can't get their views
across unless they step up and put their money where their mouth is.
What's wrong with that?" asks Bob Smith, the Little Rock lawyer who
successfully challenged the Arkansas law and is urging the Supreme
Court not to take his case.
"Telling people that they can't spend money for their own
candidacy is telling them that they can't campaign on their own
behalf, and that is the clearest violation of the First Amendment
imaginable," says Michael Carvin, a Washington lawyer who is urging
the high court to allow the appeals decision in the Cincinnati case
The appeals courts went too far in both cases, reform advocates
say. Restrictions imposed by appeals panels in the sixth and 10th
circuits have significantly eroded the ability of state and local
officials to enact meaningful campaign-finance reform, they charge.
In the absence of campaign contribution and/or spending limits,
the process turns into a free-for-all with the spoils going to the
highest bidder without regard to the best-qualified candidate,
advocates say. …