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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

'Reforming' free speech -- NOW that the Senate has devoted weeks to so-called campaign finance reform, one has to ask "what reform?" As of this writing the McCain-Feingold bill, which among other restrictions outright bans less-regulated "soft-money" contributions to political parties and restricts issue advertising before elections, seemed poised to pass the Senate.

There's only one problem: Even if it becomes law it will never withstand a constitutional challenge. That's because it overtly flies in the face of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech by severely limiting and regulating private individuals and organizations and their support of political parties and candidates.

"Soft-money" is, really, another term for free speech, and to ban one is to dramatically limit the other. If the two aren't connected, as some maintain, then the "reformers" could just as easily call for restricting contributions to churches by saying that money isn't necessary to freedom of religion, or limiting investment in newspapers by arguing that money isn't necessary to freedom of the press.

Even the bill's most ardent backers seem to recognize the problem and that they'll eventually be back at the drawing board. After all, what speech is more protected by the First Amendment than political speech? So surely they'll have another opportunity to get it right. If they really want to.

Let's start with the first part of that equation. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, Russell Feingold, D-Maine, and their backers complain there is too much money in the political system, and it's used to buy politicians. Never mind that there are already very significant limits on "hard money," which includes the dollars individuals and political action committees can contribute directly to a candidate, and that such limits are the very reason the big bucks have turned up elsewhere, including political parties and issue advocacy organizations. It's like a child's game where one smashes a peg in one place only to have two pop-up somewhere else, and the McCain-Feingold bill will only make it worse.

If "reformers" really wanted to get rid of the "influence peddling" there is a way to make it work: Create a national blind trust for political candidates. Let individuals or organizations contribute whatever they want to this National Campaign Trust, every dime of which goes directly to the candidate specified. Only, safeguards will make sure the candidate never knows where the money comes from. He can't be influenced because he doesn't know who is trying to influence him. This might even dissuade some folks who really are just trying to buy political favors.

Bingo, the goals of McCain-Feingold are easily and simply met: reduce the amount and influence of money in politics. But back to the second part of the equation. Is that really the goal?

Of course not. The entire nonsense of campaign-finance reform is about incumbency protection. Incumbents enter an election cycle with enormous advantages. From handing out political favors to making sure every constituent knows their name thanks to mailings funded by taxpayers, to free media in the form of "news," they are entrenched. The only way for a challenger, then, to take on an incumbent is with money.

That's the real "bingo:" limit the money, limit the ability of challengers to be competitive. Under the McCain-Feingold plan, incumbents go from being entrenched to being granted a lifetime tenure.

Now a National Campaign Trust is not my first choice for reform. Among other reasons, I think if the National Rifle Association or AARP wants to spend lots of money on a particular candidate and make it publicly known where they stand and who they support, they should have the right to do so. I'd actually prefer a system where all caps on political contributions from American citizens, corporations and interest groups are lifted, and every donation above, say, $1,000 is publicly disclosed in easily available forums so voters can decide if they like where a candidate's money comes from.

But according to the lights of the McCain-Feingold folks, such an idea doesn't meet their ostensible goals while the National Campaign Trust does - quite perfectly in fact. Plus it does so without the Constitutional and other landmines the McCain-Feingold bill contains and it preserves and even enlarges the ability of Americans to fully exercise their rights to free speech through their political donations.

But of course, it doesn't do anything, as far as I can see, to keep incumbents entrenched. And that's why it's obvious any idea along the lines of a National Campaign Trust won't see the light of day when the "reformers" behind McCain-Feingold are forced back to the drawing board because their "reform" fails to pass constitutional muster.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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03/20/01: The virtue of inhibition
03/12/01: Global warming crazies are full of cold air
03/06/01: Plan now for your daughter's athletic scholarship
02/22/01: Brave when the battle's done
02/14/01: Sick
02/06/01: Is nothing sacred?
01/30/01: Moral bankruptcy of the civil rights establishment
01/16/01: Who are the truly 'ugly' ones?
01/10/01: The extent to which our culture has been feminized
01/02/01: It's gettin' better all the time
12/20/00: Now that the head banging has stopped ....
12/13/00: TV keeps giving us the bad dad
12/01/00: Sorriest legacy of election has nothing to do with chads, 'aborted pregnancies' or the electoral college
12/01/00: Giving 'sleepovers' a new meaning
11/20/00: The Dems' pathetic craving for power
11/14/00: A potentially fateful indication of Gore's mindset
11/07/00: What do women really want?
10/24/00: Spare the rod ...
10/19/00: Gore is a liar --- period
10/12/00: Making the case for marriage
09/28/00: "Mommy, what's abortion?"
09/20/00: Gay righters no longer seek just tolerance but endorsement
09/14/00: The stupidity of smart growth
09/07/00: It takes more than a kiss
08/30/00: Helping out at school is more than an obligation
08/24/00: Family time comes far down the summer schedule
08/16/00: A tale of two wives
08/09/00: The Brady Bill isn't achieving its aim
08/01/00: Attention feminists: How to really keep our daughters safe
07/25/00: Everything is protective: the parents, the gear, the age
07/18/00: Say it ain't so, Ann
07/11/00: Limiting a child's choices
07/06/00: Accounting for your health
06/21/00: It's a bad time to be a boy in America
06/13/00: The state of our unions
06/02/00: Federalizing care of kids
05/17/00: The natural food threat
05/09/00: To stop gun violence, keep families intact
05/03/00: Pass the fat, please
04/25/00: Something just for boys
04/18/00: When toleration goes too far
04/10/00: Women warriors
04/05/00: Confessions of a soccer mom
03/30/00: Getting an education about schools
03/22/00: If you're a parent, act like one!
03/14/00: Not child advocates, but self-advocates
03/06/00: McCain not what he seemed at first
02/29/00: An effective answer to social problems
02/22/00: The feminists' newest target: Toys
02/06/00: Harassing the harassers
01/31/00: It doesn't take a village to raise a child --- it takes a scheduler
01/25/00: Psuedo science and global warming
01/18/00: Socially responsible nonsense
01/10/00: Monica may be onto something
12/27/99: Sometimes it matters quite a lot what government thinks
12/17/99: Teens have no inherent 'right to privacy'
12/10/99: Buying a minivan and tossing the SUV
12/03/99: On the mommy track
11/05/99:The waste of recycling
11/01/99: Welcome to Harvard pre-school
10/22/99: No disaster for women that Dole is out
10/19/99: 'Humanitarian' hypocrites
10/15/99: On a first-name basis with a three-year-old

© 2001, Scripps Howard News Service