Mr. Smith, Welcome to Washington

July 30, 1999 • Briefing Paper No. 49

In the often heated debate over campaign finance reform, few events have generated more heat than Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s selection of Professor Bradley A. Smith for a GOP seat on the Federal Election Commission. Critics called Smith, a noted expert on campaign finance, “unfit” to serve, his selection “an insult.” Someone on the FEC with his views, said one critic, is “unthinkable.” Given that opposition, President Clinton has thus far refused to nominate Smith. In response, the GOP has put a hold on Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.

What is Smith’s “crime”? In his scholarly writings, he has challenged the conventional wisdom by arguing that past campaign finance reforms have made the system worse and that most proposed reforms would do the same–and, more important, would violate the First Amendment. He urges an end to limits on both contributions and spending–but with full disclosure. Although Smith’s critics call him “radical,” their attack has raised a question: Just who is the radical? For in case after case, the courts have been on Smith’s side, not on the side of his critics. Indeed, what his critics plainly fear is that Smith, on the FEC, will not be “radical” enough, will not press the “robust enforcement” the courts have repeatedly struck down. For his part, Smith has said he will enforce the law, but he will not waste the tax‐​payers’ money pursuing unconstitutional enforcement theories. His selection is a breath of fresh air that should bring needed balance to the campaign finance debate.

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