When those advancing a cause make wild and sweeping statements designed to scare you out of your wits, you have a right to suspect they are trying to distract your attention from inconvenient arguments and damning facts.
Opponents of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which gets its first court hearing tomorrow, can't seem to contain themselves. In their legal briefs, they take a modest statute designed to close loopholes that have undermined the enforcement of long-existing laws against corruption and compare it to the hated Sedition Act of 1798. A much watered-down and narrowly targeted bill becomes, through hyperventilation, "the most threatening frontal assault on core First Amendment values in a generation." Gosh!
The fact is that McCain-Feingold simply builds on reforms passed in 1907, 1947, 1974 and 1976. It is trying only to restore sensible rules that have been ripped to shreds by loophole-mongering politicians, operatives and fundraisers in both parties. The Supreme Court has made clear that Congress has the right to contain the corrupting influence of big political money, just as it has the right to pass laws against bribery. This law stands within that tradition.
Put it this way: If laws restraining the political spending of corporations and unions are a constitutional monstrosity, then two good Republicans, President Theodore Roosevelt and Sen. Robert A. Taft -- the leading promoters of, respectively, the 1907 and 1947 acts -- were constitutional monsters. If limiting the political privileges of corporations makes us an un-free country, then we have not had a free election since 1907, when Roosevelt's limits on corporate contributions became the law of the land.
The opponents of McCain-Feingold do not want anyone to pay attention to that man behind the curtain -- the corrupting influence of big money on politics and legislation.
Don't take my word in this. Former senator Alan Simpson, who served as the Republican whip, declared in an affidavit that the current campaign financing system "prostitutes ideas and ideals, demeans democracy and debases debate." He added: "Too often, members' first thought is not what is right or what they believe, but how it will affect fundraising. Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about -- and quite possibly votes on -- an issue?"
Former senator Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, has said: "I know firsthand and from working with colleagues just how beholden elected officials and their parties can become to those who contribute to their campaigns and their parties' coffers." The flow of unregulated dollars, he said, "distorts the legislative process" and affects "what gets done and how it gets done."
Opponents of McCain-Feingold claim that it would prevent outside groups from exercising their free-speech rights to run "issue ads," which try to influence your vote without telling you whom to vote for.
But the law does nothing of the sort. Outside groups could still run even the most incendiary of these ads. The only restriction is this: If the ads are run 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election, and if the ads mention the name of a candidate for office, and if the ads are targeted to the candidate's state or district, they have to be financed under the same rules that apply to regular political advertising.
That's not an attack on free speech. It's closing a loophole. It's making sure the laws regulating those political committees that are open about what they're up to also apply to groups contending that their "issue" ads are not designed to elect or defeat anybody.
Anyone who has ever seen any of these ads knows they are about electioneering and getting around the law. Every political operative knows it's a joke to claim otherwise. The spirit of these ads was captured well by a famous spot run by a shadowy group in Montana in 1996 that literally accused a candidate of slapping his wife. Yes, the sponsors of that ad had the right to run it, but why should the law privilege advertising of this sort?
Teddy Roosevelt was right in 1907, and John McCain and Russell Feingold are right today: Keeping moneyed interests from taking ownership of the political process is in the interest of democracy. The courts let Roosevelt's efforts to contain plutocracy stand. They should do the same with the handiwork of his political descendants.