(Chris Field is on vacation. His daily First Look will return when he does.)
NOTE: This First Look originally appeared on December 12, 2003
Yesterday (Thursday) the Washington Post and the New York Times ran editorials praising the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling in McConnell v. FEC that upheld most of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance “Reform” law.
The Post‘s editorial, “Upheld,” opened with this paragraph:
- In upholding virtually all of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation yesterday, the Supreme Court issued one of its most important decisions in a generation. The ruling, embraced by five justices, makes clear that Congress is not helpless to prevent politicians from seeking unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals — who then expect, and get, a sympathetic congressional ear. The ruling also makes clear that Congress can respond when those groups circumvent restrictions on political giving by running campaign ads of their own, thinly disguised as discussions of “issues.” It affirms, in other words, that the Constitution does not require a broken democracy in which the government is impotent in the face of a culture of influence peddling.
The editorial went on to say that “Now that the Supreme Court has upheld McCain-Feingold, there is no reason why Congress should not pursue further reform.” And it closed with: “[The decision] means that American democracy is not defenseless and that purchasing access to the powerful is not protected by the right of free speech.”
Like the Post, the Times (“A Campaign Finance Triumph”) also urged Congress to restrict political speech even further, stating: “The ruling is cause for celebration, but it should also spur Congress to do more to clean up our political system” and “[n]ow that many of the constitutional objections have been stripped away, Congress has a greater obligation than ever to address what the court’s majority aptly called ‘the ill effects of aggregated wealth on our political system.'”
Of course the Times brushed aside the “freedom of speech” conundrum, simply saying that the Supreme Court “[g]iven the choice of seeing the law as a restriction on speech or as a needed corrective to corruption in politics, the court came down firmly on the side of considering it a corrective. It made clear that the free-speech test that applies to campaign contributions is a more forgiving one than is generally used for laws that prohibit speech itself. And it underscored that Congress had important interests in preventing both political corruption and the appearance of corruption.”
The Post and the Times — knowing fully the influence they have over politics and politicians — in their lambasting of others’ potential monetary influence unwittingly proved exactly the point former Sen. Phil Gramm (R.-Tex.) made when he spoke out against the McCain-Feingold bill during its deliberation in 2001.
Here are excerpts from Sen. Gramm’s sage remarks made on March 29, 2001:
- Free speech in America is a very funny thing. If a person goes out and burns the American flag and they say they are exercising free speech or they dance naked in a nightclub and say that that was personal expression, a league of defenders springs up in America to defend the first amendment of the Constitution. Yet when someone proposes that we preserve free speech about the election of our Government and the election of the men and women who serve the greatest country in the history of the world, when such a motion is made, it dies from a lack of a second.
It is astounding to me that free speech in America has come to protect flag burning and nude dancing but yet the greatest deliberative body in the history of the world feels perfectly comfortable in denying the ability of free men and women to put up their time and their talent and their money to support the candidates of their choice.
I can’t help but say a little something about the protagonists in this debate. . . . [S]eldom has a more noble effort been made on behalf of a poorer cause in the history of the U.S. Senate. [???]
You ask yourself: Why do people want to influence the Government? Why do people want to influence the Government of the United States of America? It seems to me there are really two reasons: One, they have strong feelings about something. They love their country. They have strong passions and they want to express them. And who would want to prevent them from expressing themselves? I say nobody should.
The second reason they want to influence the Government is that the Government spends $2 trillion a year, most of it on a noncompetitive basis. The Government sets the price of milk. The Government grants numerous favors. If we were serious about campaign reform, we would try to change the things that lead people to want to influence the Government for their advantage, and we would want to leave in place a system where people could express their love and their passions. Yet there is no proposal here to end the Government setting the price of milk. There is no proposal here that would have competitive bidding on contracts. Instead, we single out one source of influence, and that source of influence is money. Our problem is not bad money corrupting good men, our problem is bad men corrupting good money. [???]
Remember this, and this is what is lost in this whole debate: This is an Alice in Wonderland debate where black is white and wrong is right. It is a debate that ignores the fundamental nature of the American political system. Government has power and people want to influence it. If we limit the power of people to spend their money, we strengthen the power of people who exert influence in other ways. We don’t reduce power. We don’t reduce whatever corruptive influence may exist among the people who want to influence government. We simply take power away from some people and, by the very nature of the system, we give it to somebody else.
Why should the New York Times have more to say in my election than the New York Stock Exchange? Is the New York Times not a for-profit company? Why should they have the right to run editorials and write front-page articles that can have a profound impact on your election, and they are a for-profit corporation, publicly traded, and yet we say in this bill, they, but not others, have freedom of speech? They can say whatever they want to say. But yet the New York Stock Exchange is denied the same freedom. How can that be rational? How can that be just?
Who says that freedom of speech should belong only to people who own radio stations and television stations and newspapers? I reject it.
What makes this debate an Alice in Wonderland debate is that the people who support this bill are the very people who will benefit from taking the American people out of the debate by limiting the ability of people to put up their time and their talent and their money.
The very groups, the so-called public interest groups, the media, the very people who preach endlessly about this issue and about this bill being in the public interest, they are the very people who win an enhancement of their political power from this bill. What we are hearing identified as public interest is greedy, selfish, special interest. The amazing thing is that the voice of freedom and the right of people to be heard is not represented to any substantial degree on the floor of the Senate.
If I should believe, as a free person, that the Senator from Virginia is the new Thomas Jefferson and I believe the future of my children will be affected by his political success, don’t I have the right to sell my house, to sell my car and to use that money to help him be elected? Why shouldn’t I have that right? Who has the right to take that away from me? No one has the right to take it away from me. But this bill does take it away from me. [???]
The editorial proponents of this bill see it as somehow corrupting when somebody contributes money to my campaign. But I wonder if really they support the bill because they know that the contributors of such money, with that participation and interest, offset the influence of their editorials and their political power. Why should some people have freedom and not others? That is the profound issue that is being debated here. [???]
I think corruption, as it is portrayed in the media, has increasingly become a codeword for anybody who can speak for themselves and, therefore, doesn’t have to be too concerned about the commentary of some special interest group or the media.