Using the Fear of Big Money to Raise . . . Big Money

By Steven Miller
  • Sunday, March 24, 2002

According to the federal lawmakers who last week tossed the American Bill of Rights into a back-alley Dumpster, your First Amendment freedoms have to be destroyed in order to “save” political campaigning.

The Democrat minority leader of the U.S. House, Dick Gephardt, put it this way: “Two important values [are] in direct conflict: free speech and the desire for healthy campaigns; you can’t have both.” 

So Gephardt, Nevada Senator Harry Reid and other House and Senate incumbents have passed the falsely named “campaign finance reform” bill, saying it will serve their “desire for healthy campaigns.”

Unsurprisingly, the system they support turns out to be one that’s the healthiest for them personally, as incumbent politicians. It’s a system brutally tilted against American citizens who might want to exercise their First Amendment rights by getting together, pooling their finances and supporting challengers to incumbent office-holders.

Abraham Lincoln called this particular process “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” The authors of this sham campaign finance reform bill, however, call it “electioneering communications”—and see it as an odious evil which they must control.

Known as McCain-Feingold in the Senate and Shays-Meehan in the House, the bill is a barefaced recipe for political repression. This is recognized all across the American political spectrum—from the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO on the left to the American Conservative Union and gun rights groups on the right. For this new law criminalizes longstanding free speech rights in many ways.

Section 201 of the legislation says that during the run-up to an election you can no longer help buy a TV ad on any issue that mentions a federal political candidate, unless you jump through various complex hoops imposed by the new legislation.

You say you have evidence that Joe Blow is a crook who scammed thousands of dollars from elderly retirees? Well, unless you’re also up for the task of filling out long and complex federal forms, it’s tough luck for the voters—buy a TV ad to warn them about this sleazoid and you can be prosecuted.

Nevertheless, let’s say that you’re quite conscientious and willing to exert the extra effort that Section 201 requires. If you also go and tell the sleazoid’s campaign opponent what you know, your choice to help fund that TV ad now effectively becomes a criminal act. That’s because Section 202 of the law prohibits any issue advocacy if it is “coordinated” in even the loosest sense of that term with a federal candidate. And because you gave him a “thing of value in connection with a Federal candidate’s election”—i.e., information that might help him win the election—you and your group, under this law, have contributed to his campaign and will be automatically classed as “coordinating” your issue-advocacy with it. So you effectively lose your First Amendment rights to buy the TV ad during election season.

But perhaps you have a top-flight campaign-finance-law litigator in your hip pocket and already know this information. You’re still not out of the woods. Section 203 of the law bans issue advocacy completely if you’re a labor union or a corporation—even just a little non-profit expressly dedicated to protecting old folks from scam artists. Your organization still loses its free speech rights.

There’s more in this law that’s profoundly insulting to America’s 226-year legacy of freedom. Yet the law’s very passage itself demonstrates why the main justification for it is clearly false.

It is precisely because unconstitutional laws such as this one are now routinely passed that we have a metastasized government that regulates and redistributes everything in sight. In such a world, where our constitution’s original obstacles to unlimited government are largely ignored, members of the political class have huge power. Largely unconstrained by the courts, they can assist appropriately responsive businesses to profiteer through government. Or they can—as Tony Coelho used to do—threaten insufficiently “responsive” industries with destructive legislation until they pony up some big bucks.

If federal politicians had a genuine desire to reduce Big Money in politics, all they need do is reduce its source—Big Government itself.

This, of course, is something that federal politicians almost never do. They naturally find it much more congenial to pretend that money itself is the problem. And, as we see in this case, such pretense affords them a fine rationale for seeking ever-greater power over the rest of their fellow citizens.

Steven Miller is editorial director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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