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Let the Cash Flow

By James K. Glassman
Tuesday, May 12, 1998; Page A19

Like Glenn Close (supposedly drowned by her former lover Michael Douglas) suddenly rising from the bathtub, knife in hand, in the movie "Fatal Attraction," campaign finance reform is alive and kicking -- and just as deadly.

If it passes, it will make a bloody mess of the First Amendment to the Constitution. While restricting the free speech of other individuals and groups, it will enhance the power of the one institution that has boosted it rabidly: the press.

On April 22, a group of House freshmen forced Speaker Newt Gingrich to schedule campaign reform for a vote on the floor. Debate will start soon. If a bill passes, senators will be faced with a tough decision. Only 40 are needed to block a vote, and 48 have opposed earlier bills, but the pressure to relent this time will be intense.

I would give campaign reform a 60 percent chance to pass in the next month or so -- up from about 10 percent in mid-April. Isn't that good news? Not at all.

The reform bills are various and complicated, but their aim is to limit what individuals, unions, corporations and organized groups can contribute -- and what they and politicians and parties can spend.

Limiting spending means limiting the most important kind of free speech -- political advocacy. As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in Buckley v. Valeo, "One of the points on which all Members of the Court agree is that money is essential for effective communication in a political campaign."

The decision also stated: "The First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one's political views is wasteful, excessive or unwise." But that is precisely what the reformers -- naive and dangerous -- are doing.

In fact, the more political speech, the better. So why should we restrict the amount of money that can be spent on campaigns? To prevent "special interests" from influencing government?

But donations to political campaigns are a logical response to a system that gives politicians the power to bestow money and regulatory benefits worth billions of dollars on corporations or other favored groups -- or, just as often, the power to punish those same folks.

Any company or interest group that doesn't spend lots of money trying to influence politicians -- through contributions or lobbying -- is doing its shareholders or members a terrible disservice.

You can't blame Americans for being exasperated with a system in which public officials spend their time raising huge chunks of cash from corporate fat cats. But the solution is not to toss the First Amendment away. Don't limit free speech, limit government.

Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, has called "campaign legislation like the McCain-Feingold bill . . . patently unconstitutional." Worse, it takes away the rights of normal citizens to tell others why a candidate should be elected, while it lets the press retain those same rights -- indeed, enhance them as opposing voices are reduced.

The irony is that the public believes that favorable press is more important to political victory than big spending. Last year, a survey by Rasmussen Research found that, by a 61 percent to 19 percent margin, Americans believe "that a candidate preferred by reporters will beat a candidate who raises more money."

As a result, people want to restrict how newspapers cover campaigns: While just 22 percent would opt for public funding of races, 59 percent want to place limits on the press.

Some 80 percent believe newspapers should be forced to give equal space to any candidate they oppose editorially. A majority thinks newspapers should have to give free ad space to candidates, and 42 percent say that "newspapers should be required to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on their Editorial Board."

Sure, each one of these measures is an obnoxious violation of the Constitution, but the public's instinct is correct: Reining in the press would have more effect on politics than fiddling around with the campaign finance laws.

Fiddling won't work anyway. The fiddlers, like so many other would-be regulators today, are fighting a rear-guard action against the future. Campaign laws are a cinch to circumvent and violate with impunity, as Sen. Fred Thompson's hearings showed. Anyway, as the Internet makes spreading ideas cheaper and easier, the laws will be superfluous.

For now, however, we can make two simple changes that really would have a beneficial effect. One would encourage more political speech; the other would give voters more information on who is backing candidates:

(1) Raise the limits on individual contributions from $1,000 to $3,000 and on PAC donations from $5,000 to $15,000, thus adjusting for inflation ceilings set two decades ago. This reform would also encourage more candidates who aren't mega-millionaires (who can use their own money, without limit) to run for office.

(2) Require immediate disclosure of all donations and the sources of all independent spending. Let voters decide themselves whether a candidate is in the thrall of labor or tobacco interests.

But leave the First Amendment alone, and pare the power of government, not individual rights.

The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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