Commentary

Shays-Meehan Ad Nauseam

Campaign finance reform is about to hit the House floor. “Enron focuses the debate,” proclaimed Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), as he supplied the 218th - and decisive - signature on a discharge petition to force the Shays-Meehan bill out of committee. Maybe Neal was right about the Enron debacle. Both parties are conspicuously reaffirming their commitment to rein in campaign finance abuses. But back in the real world, there’s no evidence so far of political chicanery.

All the same, “reformers” insist on regurgitating Shays-Meehan for the umpteenth time. Their zeal endures, notwithstanding consistent Supreme Court pronouncements over a quarter-century that curbing corruption is the only reason to restrict political expression. Yet nobody identifies who has been tainted by so-called soft dollars, much less who might sell out for a paltry $1,000 in hard dollars - a limit that has persisted for 27 years despite being gutted by inflation. A bill like Shays-Meehan, which bans soft dollars and leaves the cap on hard dollars pretty much in place, will only divert the riches to some other loophole. Besides, would-be supporters know that the political risk is huge, especially if your party needs soft dollars and the other guys have a big lead in raising cash.

That’s the dilemma facing reformers in the House. To make matters worse, the bill they’re being asked to pass trashes the First Amendment by prohibiting most radio and TV ads unless voting day is so far away nobody cares. Naturally, that prohibition doesn’t apply to the media. So Philip Morris can’t mention the name of a candidate in an ad within 60 days of an election. But if the company acquires a newspaper, somehow the speech restrictions vanish. The idea is to stop big bucks - except media big bucks, of course - from buying votes. Predictably, however, dollars flow to politicians who share the donor’s views. In other words, the cash follows the views, not vice-versa.

One would think that a campaign finance reform bill would try to expand, not contract, the opportunity to participate in the political process. By that standard, Shays-Meehan surely doesn’t qualify. Still, in past voting, 252 members backed the legislation. That’s because they knew that the Senate’s counterpart bill, McCain-Feingold, would die. And it did. This time, however, there’s no free vote. McCain-Feingold redux is a done deal. No wonder, therefore, that the “reformers” backed off when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted on separate votes on 14 last-minute amendments that Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Rep. Meehan (D-Mass.) hurled at the Rules Committee. Most of the Democrats, including the Congressional Black Caucus, yielded to political reality and postponed their anti-corruption charade.

Evidently, here’s the controlling campaign finance principle (if you can call it that): Better no reform bill than a bill that handicaps our party’s fundraising. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) offers a more elegant, albeit disingenuous, exposition: “Two important values [are] in direct conflict: free speech and the desire for healthy campaigns; you can’t have both.” Nonsense. Free speech is the quintessence of a healthy campaign. Both can be destroyed by regulation. Far from granting power to government, the First Amendment is intended to withhold that power. Otherwise, politicians will decide what we can say about them.

As for money, it’s just a symptom. Overweening government has wormed its way into nearly every aspect of our lives. Our pervasive regulatory and redistributive state creates huge incentives for profiteering. Because of the big government problem there’s a big money problem. By cutting government down to size, we can minimize the influence of big money. Restoring the Framers’ notion of enumerated, delegated and thus limited powers will get the state out of our lives and out of our wallets. That’s the best way to end the campaign-finance racket, and root out venality without jeopardizing political expression.

Until then, let’s protect political ads at least as much as we protect Internet porn and flag burning. The suppression of political speech is intolerable in a free society. Not surprisingly, when the state clamps controls on political information, powerful forces work to outwit the system. That’s the way it should be if the First Amendment means anything.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.