Not-so-free speech

Big-money campaign contributions are destroying the electoral system, and everyone seems to know it but our federal judges.

Citing First Amendment protections of free expression, a federal appeals court recently shot down important provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform measure, a move that sets up a Supreme Court battle to decide the bill’s fate. At issue will be a fundamental question: Are unlimited “soft money” campaign contributions a constitutionally protected form of free speech, or does Congress have the power to limit them?

We welcome the Supreme Court showdown. It is no exaggeration to say that no issue could be more important to the survival of American democracy.

It’s obvious to even the most disinterested political observers that money has taken over the electoral process in this country. In an age of media-dominated politics, the vast majority of national elections are decided according to one factor: how much television advertising a candidate can buy. Realizing this, candidates have little choice but to court contributors with the deepest pockets. The result has been elections that are dominated by repulsive attack ads and a government that is all but bought and paid for by special interests.

In this game of influence peddling and legalized bribery, soft money has become the coin of the realm. That’s because, following the Watergate scandal, Congress passed limits on personal donations to federal candidates. Almost immediately, however, fund-raisers discovered a loophole: Political parties and affiliated private groups could solicit and accept unlimited contributions of so-called soft money, funds given to a group and not expressly in support of a given candidate. This money could be spent legally on thinly veiled campaign advertisements, most often in the form of attack ads.

It’s not surprising that McCain-Feingold had considerable public support. Named for its sponsors—Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.—the law passed after a long legislative struggle and succeeded in banning unlimited soft-money contributions. But earlier this month, in a complicated, 1,700-page decision, a federal court voided much of the law, by citing constitutional protections of political expression.

That’s nothing less than a complete corruption of the First Amendment. Limits on campaign contributions serve to facilitate, not limit, political discourse by leveling the playing field and allowing more voices to enter the debate. Unlimited contributions up the ante and ensure that only the wealthiest are heard.

The vast majority of Americans favor electoral reforms, but until the Supreme Court affirms the ability of Congress to limit the money in federal politics, nothing of significance can be done. We urge the court to uphold McCain-Feingold and soft-money contribution limits.