Under the McCain-Feingold law regulating campaign contributions, the Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) group was banned from airing political advertisements in the two months preceding the 2004 elections — and they weren’t happy about it. But in an opinion released Monday the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling (written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts), the high court loosened restrictions on television advertisements that air in what was known as the 30-60 day “black-out” period before elections. Specifically, the WRTL ads urged constituents to call the state’s two senators, Democrats Russ Feingold (who was up for election) and Herb Kohl, and advocate them not to filibuster President Bush’s judicial nominees.
WRTL Executive Director Barbara Lyons called it a “tremendous victory” that “soundly rejected the attempts….to silence WRTL’s efforts to inform the public regarding an important issue pending in Congress.”
McCain-Feingold, in addition to banning unregulated soft-money contributions, restricted ads that mentioned a candidate’s name if they were paid for with corporate or union money. This attempt to prevent “unfair influence” over elections infringed on Americans’ First Amendment rights and thus had to be cut back if not overruled entirely. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law” to restrict free speech. Yet that is just what McCain Feingold did. It should never have passed. Moreover, President Bush should have vetoed it.
Republicans, family groups and pro-life organizations see the ruling as a victory. Executive Director of the National Right to Life Committee David O’Steen applauded the decisions but said WRTL’s ads mentioned nothing about the election to begin with. “Imagine it being illegal in the U.S. to simply request and urge their elected representatives to take some action on a legislative matter,” O’Steen told HUMAN EVENTS.
The ads were considered “electioneering communications,” which were prohibited, because it mentioned the candidates by name. WRTL filed a suit saying this was unconstitutional for grass roots lobbying about coming Congressional votes.
Concerned Women for America representative and Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute (the think tank for CWA) Janice Crouse considers the ruling a victory because it “enables us to be able to point out last minute developments in policy and…communicate with the public on issues just before the elections.”
While each organization I contacted agreed the ruling was a positive step, most commented it was a long way from proper reform. “There’s considerable discussion on whether it goes far enough and is clear enough,” said Crouse.
It removes severe restrictions on political expressions but other angles of McCain-Feingold need significant reform as well.
The decision is twofold as it benefits both conservative and liberal causes — opening the door for labor unions, environmental groups and other industrial companies as well as faith-based organizations. Many leaders believe McCain-Feingold should be totally reformed. In their written opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas indicated as much.
Tom McClusky, Vice-President for government affairs at the Family Research Council, agrees. “It’s disappointing that it was so narrow,” said McClusky. “But we are happy with the decision…right or left, it doesn’t really matter…it’s a victory for free speech.”
From the ACLU to Focus on the Family, this ruling re-opens the door for all advocacy groups to influence public debate and encourage healthy dialogue on the issues they see as important in a time-sensitive manner. This new prospect, however, will likely bring an onslaught of obnoxious over-advertising in the two months preceding Election Day. But the ability to do so is a critical function of our democracy.
“Congress is at work passing laws concerning the lives of citizens in the U.S. and yet the McCain-Feingold Act sought to stifle the ability of organizations to discuss the works of Congress,” said O’Steen.
O’Steen said National Right to Life would use the new advertising opportunity if legislative matters at the time required a supportive voice in Congress.
The ruling’s significance is enhanced by the new media aspect of the 2008 election. The ability to influence constituents until the last minute could change the outcome of the election. Blogs, YouTube, My Space and other interactive online efforts play into the reasoning behind this Court decision.
Human Life International considers themselves “pro-life missionaries to the world” and Joseph Meaney, director of international coordination, believes the ruling is important because, “Sometimes it’s hard to communicate to (those) voters who is pro-life and who is not in Congress.” Meaney said sometimes representatives claim they are pro life but their records will be very different and because the pro-life side has limited funding.
“I think the McCain-Feingold Act really recognized that,” Meaney told HUMAN EVENTS. “This was not an accident and…in many was intended to silence pro-life and conservative groups.”
Now, pro-life groups will be one voice among many in a chorus of activists trumpeting for candidates under issues banners.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said “The law…purported to reduce the influence of money in politics, but we now know that influence is greater than ever.”
Bill sponsor and Republican presidential candidate John McCain distanced himself further from the conservative base, calling the ruling “regrettable.”
“…the Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal candidate in the days and weeks before an election,” McCain said.
His partner-in-legislation Sen. Russ Feingold, decried the decision as a “disappointment” and said it “seems susceptible to easy manipulation by group’s intent on spending corporate and union money to influence elections.”
McCain-Feingold’s second name, “The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act” seems more fitting to the tune of this outcome. A bipartisan wave of applause accompanies the Supreme Court ruling and the 2008 presidential election will be better for it.