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Muzzling 'Soft Money'

By George F. Will
Sunday, June 8, 1997; Page C09


President Clinton wants the Federal Election Commission to ban "soft money" from politics. That perfectly encapsulates today's Washington, where Democrats and Republicans are imaginative only about their plans for vastly extending government regulation – rationing, really – of America's most fundamental freedom, political speech.

Clinton's brainstorm is to get a bureaucracy to ban "soft money." Such money finances the dissemination of political speech but finances it by contributions to parties, not particular candidates.

Clinton does not propose submitting his proposed constriction of political debate to elected representatives for debate and decision. Such is the debilitation of democracy. Americans have become used to social change dictated by fiats, usually from courts. So why not also achieve campaign finance "reform" by fiat, this time from the FEC?

For that matter, why should restrictions extend only to campaign speech? When the government restricted giving to, and spending by, candidates, "soft money" began swirling around campaigns. If next the government bans "soft money," the incorrigible public will find other ways to butt into public debate, such as by issue advocacy that comments on the beliefs or actions of persons holding or seeking public office. The nerve.

Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, has been in the Senate only five months, but he seems eager to regulate speech that inconveniences him. Before the recent vote on banning partial-birth abortions, groups favoring the ban bought radio and television time in the states of senators thought to be undecided. The groups ran spots explaining their position and urging viewers to ask the senators to support the ban.

Such involvement of citizens in civic discourse evidently strikes Cleland as impertinent. David Pace of the Associated Press reports:

"The media blitz prompted hundreds of calls to Cleland's offices, but it failed to persuade him to back the ban. What it did, instead, was reinforce his commitment to changing the nation's campaign finance laws."

Well. Cleland is not a candidate; what annoyed him was not campaign spending – spending to influence an election. It was spending to influence the thinking of a politician who will not face voters for 5 1/2 years. Perhaps Cleland wants to extend government regulation of advocacy beyond the context of elections, to encompass all organized discussion of public affairs.

Cleland supports the McCain-Feingold bill for rationing political speech by limiting, among much else, "express advocacy" – communication that refers to an "identifiable candidate" and that might reasonably be construed as advocating that candidate's election or defeat. "But," reports Pace, "Cleland now says he's not sure that bill goes far enough" and may draft legislation to give the FEC more powers.

Cleland says: "We need a good strong referee here that calls a tight game." Oh. Government as strong referee, calling "fouls" on certain acts of free speech, perhaps including mere issue advocacy. That follows naturally from the reformers' premises that speech is a freedom that government should restrict, and that participation in politics by individuals contributing money is an "abuse" of a "loophole" in the speech-rationing regime.

The "Blue Dogs," a coalition of supposedly moderate House Democrats, have a speech-rationing bill that would restrict independent expenditures (any person's communication that expressly supports or opposes a candidate) to $25,000 per election cycle per district. What is novel is the bill's requirement that any person making such communication within 10 days of an election must "disclose the communication to the candidate involved and the candidate's opponent prior to the time the communication is broadcast or disseminated."

The reason for this? See the bill's 12th "finding." It says that even when there is no coordination between a candidate, a party and a person making an independent communication – even when the communication is impeccably independent – "the candidate risks losing control over the tone, clarity, and content of his or her own campaign."

How is that for the entitlement mentality gone mad? Candidates are entitled to speech restrictions that serve the candidates' entitlement to "control" the "tone, clarity, and content" of public debate near an election. That public debate is their private property?

What would journalists say about a law limiting the amount of issue advocacy or candidate endorsements that could appear in the press in any election cycle? Or a law to help candidates control the tone, clarity and content of campaigns by requiring journalists to notify candidates of criticisms or endorsements within 10 days of an election?

Journalists stand to be enlarged by restrictions on everyone else's speech, which perhaps explains why there is so little journalistic indignation about – indeed so much sympathy for – the multiplying proposals for minimizing free speech. This is a scandal more serious than any which the "reforms" are supposed to correct.


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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