- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Legal scholars ranging from the ACLU president to a lawyer who has represented the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee told a House panel yesterday that current attempts at campaign finance reform are unconstitutional.

Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, called the oversight hearing to help determine the constitutional issues in campaign finance reform.

Two bills — the McCain-Feingold bill, which has already passed the Senate, and the Shays-Meehan bill — are pending in the House this summer.

But three of the four scholars before the panel yesterday said those bills are unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech.

"At best it chills, at worst it outright gags, the most important speech in a democracy — citizens´ criticism of government policies and officials," said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

And James Bopp Jr., a lawyer who has represented a number of conservative causes and state Republican parties, said he has persuaded a number of courts to strike down restrictions like those in the bills. He also said no court case suggests the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the restrictions.

The sole witness supporting the legislation didn´t explicitly rebut that. But Glenn J. Moramarco, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the bills won´t hurt true issue advocacy ads, but rather will go after ads that blur the line between issues and candidates.

A Brennan Center study of the 2000 election cycle showed that of 252 ads sponsored by interest groups, only three were "genuine issue ads that did not have the intent of electing or defeating a candidate."

The Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between ads that advocate a position on an issue and ads that advocate electing or defeating a candidate. Issue ads carry fewer regulations on raising money and disclosing donors than candidate ads.

Supporters of the two bills say that the line between the two types has blurred, and that they want to establish new restrictions — a 60-day period before primaries or elections during which issue ads could not mention a candidate´s name or, if they did, the groups running them would have to follow tougher fund-raising and disclosure rules.

The bills´ opponents said that would place an impossible burden on advocacy groups like the ACLU or on organizations like the Catholic Church.

Rep. Martin T. Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who is sponsoring the House legislation along with Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, read to the panel scripts of two television ads. One talked about a candidate´s office management as a state attorney general, and the other talked about a candidate´s history of slapping his wife and not paying child support.

"The question before the Congress, the question before the United States Supreme Court, will be determined by whether or not what I just read is a political ad, subject to the regulations of the Federal Election Committee, or whether it´s really issue advocacy," Mr. Meehan said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and the subcommittee´s ranking minority member, called the current campaign finance system "an international disgrace."

"I really think that if we don´t radically change the way we finance elections, historians of the future will write that the United States, like the Roman Republic, had a good 200- or 250-year run with democracy, but then the system evolved into something else plutocracy or oligarchy, corporate rule or whatever," Mr. Nadler said.

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