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Campaign Finance Overkill

By William Raspberry
Thursday, September 19, 1997; Page A21


I make no excuse for President Clinton or Vice President Gore. Indeed, I'm quite prepared to accept that they violated – knowingly violated – federal law with regard to campaign fund-raising.

Still, the hearings before Sen. Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee make me a little uneasy. The prospect of an independent counsel investigation, given the tendency of those things to get out of hand, is positively chilling.

If that sounds like partisan irresolution, it gets worse. I don't like the idea of high officials getting away with law violations, and yet I can't imagine what punishment of the alleged violations I would accept as equitable.

A bad analogy might demonstrate my dilemma. Say your state – for reasons you don't comprehend and which may not in fact make much sense – has enacted a 28-mph speed limit on an unremarkable two-mile strip of interstate highway. What do you do with motorists who come zooming through at, say, 32 mph?

You don't want to send the message that anyone can violate the speed laws with impunity; speed kills, and you have to believe that those who enacted the limits did so in the interest of public safety.

On the other hand, how many licenses would you snatch, and how many drivers would you send to jail for doing something that (it seemed to you) endangered the public not a whit?

Laws ought both to have some purpose and to advance that purpose. The purpose of the fund-raising laws is clear and commendable: to prevent the buying and selling of public office. But how does the law that has Al Gore in such trouble advance that purpose? It forbids solicitation or receipt of contributions in any federal "room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties." Did Gore solicit campaign contributions from his office phone? Sure he did. Clinton, too. Would the republic have been more secure if they had toddled off to the corner drugstore to make the calls? (Waiting until they got home after work would have been no solution; both live in buildings "occupied in the discharge of official duties.")

People who study these things say the prohibition, part of the civil service reform of a century ago, was designed to keep public officials from pressuring their staffs into making contributions. It did not contemplate telephoned solicitations made to private citizens.

But that's not all that bothers me about the investigations. Thompson's hearings are supposed to have some legislative purpose and, in truth, one keeps hearing about the need for campaign finance reform. But one could be forgiven for wondering if the true purpose isn't to bolster Republican Thompson's own presidential prospects and to destroy Democrat Gore's.

That is, perhaps, a small point. This isn't: The Supreme Court has said money is speech. If that makes sense (and it does to me), how can it make sense to put arbitrary limits on the amount of speech that's permissible?

That's not a trick question; it worries me a lot. It's inconceivable that there should be limits on the amount of time, doorbell-ringing, envelope-stuffing or other forms of political "speech" supporters can contribute to candidates of their choice. Why should we countenance limits on money speech?

The obvious answer is that we don't like the idea of rich people buying influence over public officials or otherwise subverting the government to their private purposes. (It's easy, though not necessarily fair, to assume that the purposes of the rich are more likely to be against the public interest than are the purposes of, say, organized labor.)

Maybe there's no way out of the dilemma. Either we allow free speech in all its forms, or we arbitrarily limit it for people we don't trust. The latest attempt to split the difference – allowing larger amounts of "speech" on behalf of political parties and smaller amounts for candidates – has pretty much come a cropper. Soft money/hard money indeed!

Public financing of campaigns is the most frequently offered solution. But how do you ensure fairness to lesser-known candidates, and how do you ensure the free speech rights of those who talk with their pocketbooks?

We have two things going on at the same time: a serious campaign-finance dilemma and a juicy campaign-finance scandal.

Guess which one will get the attention.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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