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Politics as Public Auction

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 19, 1998; Page A25


There's been a major breakthrough in the battle to reform the campaign money system. As the House of Representatives joined a bitter debate this week over a measure to fight some of the more egregious campaign abuses, a group of luminaries from the American Civil Liberties Union has broken with the organization's opposition to the principles underlying the bill.

In a statement that will be formally released in the next few days, the nine leaders -- among them, former ACLU president Norman Dorsen, former executive director Aryeh Neier, former legal director Burt Neuborne and former legislative director Morton Halperin -- dispute the ACLU's view that placing "reasonable limits on campaign spending" violates the First Amendment.

"We believe that the First Amendment is designed to safeguard a functioning and fair democracy," the statement declares. "The current system of campaign financing makes a mockery of that ideal by enabling the rich to set the national agenda, and to exercise disproportionate influence over the behavior of public officials."

For those who oppose campaign reform, the ACLU's opposition to limits on the campaign money system has been a priceless gift.

When a politician with bulging campaign coffers cites solicitude for the First Amendment as grounds for opposing reform, the claim seems suspect -- especially when the politician in question has little history of worrying about the First Amendment in other areas. But because it has defended free speech even in unpopular cases, the ACLU commands attention on First Amendment issues even from its harshest critics.

In breaking with the ACLU on campaign spending limits, the dissenters -- they also include Melvin Wulf, Bruce Ennis, John Powell, Jack Pemberton and Charles Morgan Jr. -- go to the heart of the matter. They challenge the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 decision in the Buckley case, which overturned parts of the Watergate-era reforms, saying it inappropriately treated "the spending of money as though it were pure speech."

The fundamental problem raised by the Buckley decision is that it permitted Congress to limit campaign contributions but virtually ruled out limits on campaign expenditures. The result has been our incoherent, loophole-ridden law.

"By upholding limits on the size and source of campaign contributions, while preventing any effort to limit the demand for campaign funds by capping spending," the ACLU rebels write, the Buckley decision "inadvertently created a system that tempts politicians to break the law governing campaign contributions in order to satisfy an uncontrollable need for campaign cash."

The current system sanctioned by the court, they say, has replaced the principle of "one person-one vote" with a "regime of `one dollar-one vote.' " This "distorts the fundamental principle of political equality underlying the First Amendment itself."

The idea behind campaign reform is that it's legitimate to limit the influence of money on the process of governing. We don't regard it as an exercise of free speech when someone bribes a congressman for his vote. We don't let people hand out five-dollar bills to purchase votes on Election Day. We don't let the highest bidder win the decision he wants from, say, an environmental regulator.

The current push for reform arises from the reasonable fear that sharp increases in the cost of campaigns have fundamentally changed the political system and turned politics into a public auction. The importance of money has been so magnified that it endangers the credibility of our governing and legislating system. In an interview, Dorsen said he and the other ACLU dissenters were moved to act publicly because the campaign money investigations over the past two years have made the need for reform "so evident."

The formal position of the ACLU is not likely to change any time soon. Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU's Washington office, said the group plans to push for its own approach to reform, built around public financing of underfinanced candidates. Her principle is: "You can help the smaller ships sail. You can't keep the wealthier voices silent."

Public financing is a good idea, as is free television time and free mailing for all candidates. Here's the problem: Many members of Congress agree with only half of the ACLU's position. They invoke First Amendment arguments to oppose the modest but needed limits contained in the McCain-Feingold reform bill. Yet they are also among the most devout opponents of any effort to reduce the writ of private money by pumping public money into campaigns.

Perhaps the ACLU leaders will be encouraged by the dissenters to be at least as outspoken in their advocacy of public financing as they are now in opposing McCain-Feingold. As the rebels write, "opponents of reform should no longer be permitted to hide behind an unjustified constitutional smoke screen." Or the ACLU.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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