The Senate this week is wrestling the wind. The wind deserves to win.
No matter how the various proposals for "campaign finance reform" are worded, all of them share a terrible flaw. All of them would curb political speech. It is a curious goal in a nation historically dedicated to a robust discussion of public affairs. Eventually the Supreme Court is bound to say so.
Underlying the debate is a remarkable complaint. It is that our elections "cost too much." How much is too much? Who fixes a proper price tag? Fuzzy figures abound — $300 million here, $500 million there — but who knows? Whatever the unknowable total may be, it is less, and probably a great deal less, than the country spends on the advertising of deodorants, toothpaste and beer.
The case for campaign finance reform is a flimsy case. It begs the question. Friends of reform assume that reform is necessary — that the body politic is seriously infected — and leap at once to the particulars of cure. The general idea, paraphrasing Lord Acton, is that money corrupts and a great deal of money corrupts absolutely.
Horrid examples are summoned for public viewing. The gentleman from New Jersey, it is said, effectively bought his seat out of his own capacious pocket. Coal producers supported George W. Bush, and look what Bush has done for them.
Limitations on campaign contributions are necessary, we are told, to curtail the influence of "special interests." Who are these special interests? Let us look in a mirror and over a shoulder. The special interests are you and I and everyone of the same opinion. "We has met the enemy," cried Pogo the Possum, "and he is us."
We are supposed to be outraged, resentful or at least profoundly troubled by the sums contributed by the vendors of credit cards, slot machines and prescription drugs. These are special interests. So, too, are schoolteachers, airline pilots and defenders of the national parks. Is Congress to dictate how much they may raise and spend to promote a candidate or an issue?
How did the idea take root that political speech should be limited? It is a pernicious idea, violative of the most fundamental principles of government in a free society. What does the Constitution say? "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." That is what the Constitution says.
What do the pending bills say? One proposal would limit soft-money donations from committees to $60,000 a year. But suppose I form a committee and buy $70,000 worth of newspaper ads for the candidate of my choice. Is this not my First Amendment right? Am I forbidden to put my money where my mouth is?
The New York Times says that "McCain-Feingold does not outlaw campaign donations." How kind of McCain-Feingold! What, then, would the bill do? It would "impose a set of realistic curbs." There is a constitutional amendment for you. "The Congress shall have power to impose realistic curbs upon the freedom of speech." It has a lovely sound, does it not? It is the sound of a door closing, of a bolt sliding home.
Under its broad power to regulate the "manner" of conducting congressional elections, Congress may act on campaign finance without offending the Constitution. Full disclosure is the key. It is no abridgement of free speech to require that the sponsors of political advertising identify themselves.
In the name of the Founding Fathers, let us have some faith in the fundamental wisdom of the people. We are not a nation of dummies. Sure, charlatans and thimbleriggers are part of the political process, and some rogues will seduce the gullible.
No bill in the Senate is likely to repeal the laws of human nature. We have to have faith in the strength of our constitutional structure. It will stand against the hurricanes of privilege and wealth. Let the winds of faction blow!
Universal Press Syndicate