In a recent conversation with columnist David Broder, former President Gerald R. Ford professed to be perplexed at my determination to defeat efforts in Congress to pile on more campaign finance regulations ("I don't understand why that fellow [McConnell] . . . is so adamant") [op-ed, June 16].
Reading the Supreme Court's 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which eviscerated the campaign finance "reforms" that President Ford signed into law in 1974, would foster an understanding of my stance and an appreciation of the First Amendment freedom at the heart of this debate.
To make sense of the campaign finance issue one must first recognize that "soft money," "issue advocacy," "independent expenditures," "express advocacy," "PACs," "bundling" and all the other terms of art in the debate are euphemisms for constitutionally protected political speech and association. It is a fact of life that it costs money to amplify one's voice in our nation of 270 million citizens. It stands to reason that government restrictions on your ability to pay to project your speech impinge on your freedom of speech.
In the Buckley decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall succinctly stated the First Amendment implications of campaign finance regulation: "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 court proceeded to strike down as unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment: (1) a cap on independent expenditures by private citizens and groups; (2) government regulation of issue advocacy, and; (3) mandatory candidate spending limits.
The major elements in the Ford law that the court left standing were contribution limits, public disclosure and the presidential system's taxpayer-funded voluntary spending limits. The presidential system has limited neither spending nor "special interests," while distorting the process and amounting to a fraud at taxpayers' expense. But the greatest harm has come from the Ford law's circa-1974 contribution limits, which are strangling campaigns and parties a quarter-century after their enactment.
In addition to the $1,000 limit on individual gifts to a candidate and the $5,000 limit on those by a political action committee (PAC), the Ford law imposed many other restrictions, including a $5,000 limit on what can be given to a PAC, a $20,000 maximum on contributions to a political party's federal account, a $25,000 total limit on giving to candidates and the parties and a $17,500 limit on what parties can contribute to Senate candidates. All of these are limits on what is known in campaign finance parlance as "hard" money (funds raised and spent to "expressly advocate" a federal candidate's election). None of these limits has ever been adjusted for inflation.
The truth is that the lower the contribution limits are, the more that the well-known (a famous name is a huge advantage), the well-off (the limits do not apply to your personal money, a la Ross Perot) and the well-organized (large contributor base) benefit. To reflect the Consumer Price Index increase since 1974, the individual contribution limit would have to be more than tripled, to $3,300.
Moreover, since 1979, the television viewing audience to which campaigns must make their appeals has splintered, newspaper readership has declined, Internet use has been exploding. As a result, political campaigns and parties are paying exponentially more to reach voters.
With federal campaign contribution limits frozen in time, other avenues of speech -- so-called soft money -- have proliferated and been magnified in their importance. Soft money funds political speech that does not, by Supreme Court edict, fall under the federal government's regulatory purview because it does not "expressly" support or oppose a particular candidate.
Political speech that does not cross that court-established bright line is known as "issue advocacy" (paid for with soft money). Issue advocacy receives the strictest First Amendment protection and cannot be regulated by the government.
Soft money isn't sinister. Newspapers do "soft money" (meaning non-federally regulated) issue advocacy every day on their editorial pages (and frequently on the front page) and "express" advocacy every election through candidate endorsements. Were it not for a section of the Ford law that exempts media organizations from the definition of campaign "expenditure," every newspaper and broadcaster in America would have to retain an election lawyer to fend off federal campaign finance regulators. The vaunted McCain-Feingold bill also contains a special exemption -- one could term it a loophole -- for the media.
Because of the static contribution limits President Ford signed into law a quarter-century ago, candidates, groups and parties in 1999 have to work a lot harder to reach the American people. Regulation is the problem, not the answer.
The writer, a Republican senator from Kentucky, is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and of the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance.