- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

From its inception, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill has been about imposing rigid government controls over election campaigns, independent political activity and free speech.

This is not just a very bad bill. It is a dangerous bill, one that would rob us of our political freedoms under the guise of reform. At its very core, it is an incumbent-protection bill that would keep certain advocacy groups, labor unions and for-profit corporations out of the most critical period of an election by banning their campaign ads, if they mention a candidate for federal office, in the last two months of an election. And that´s just for starters.

These independent ads typically criticize a candidate for his stand on an issue or his voting record. In a free and democratic society, people have every right to do so. Incumbents do not like these ads, because they have to spend time and money responding to them. But should the federal government be allowed to ban such political speech simply because an incumbent finds it bothersome or disagreeable?

"The real purpose of the ban is to protect incumbents from criticism during campaigns," writes John Samples of the Cato Institute, in an excellent critique of the danger that this bill poses to our freedoms. "But making the lives of incumbent members of Congress easier is not a good reason to ban political speech."

The news media have focused on the bill´s ban on large, unregulated soft-money contributions to national party committees, without asking what is wrong with such donations. The money is used by the parties to promote its views, to build state party organizations, to conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, and to engage Americans in the political life and discourse of the nation.

People voluntarily give a lot of money to their parties as an expression of their political beliefs. That money has led to the development of a strong two-party system, which has been the backbone of our democratic system of government. At a time when fewer than half of all eligible voters bother to vote, we should be strengthening the parties, not weakening them.

But Sen. John McCain´s bill would take away the freedom to give as much money as one wishes to the political party of one´s choice. The ban on soft money will weaken the parties and very likely reduce the participation of Americans in politics.

And it isn´t just unregulated soft money in federal elections that would be banned. If you read the fine print in this undemocratic bill, you will find that state and local parties would be banned from using soft money for voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives within four months of an election, even for state and local candidates.

"For all its good intentions, McCain-Feingold would severely handicap the ability of state and county parties to increase voter participation," write Sens. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, and John Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, in a recent op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

It is hard to see how this bill can be found constitutional by the courts. A long list of judicial decisions have declared that campaign contributions are a form of political speech fully protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, the trend in court rulings on campaign finance laws over nearly three decades has been to overturn federal regulations that restrict certain forms of campaign financing.

Apparently, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has missed these rulings or has learned nothing from them.

As with the 1974 campaign-finance reform bill, if McCain-Feingold is passed by Congress, will have many unintended consequences. In fact, it will probably do just the opposite of what Mr. McCain intends it to do.

Forbidding unrestricted soft-money contributions to political parties will redirect the money elsewhere. It will go to a variety of independent political groups, unions and business organizations that are going to find other ways to voice their opinions to influence elections.

The result will be to further diminish the role of parties in our democracy and to strengthen the influence, political power and resources of special interests across the political spectrum.

It would be nice if President Bush, who was opposed to Mr. McCain´s efforts to further regulate the political life of the country, would veto this bill because of his adherence to the basic principle of freedom of speech.

But Mr. Bush, perhaps intimidated by the news media´s campaign to turn this bill into the Holy Grail of election reform, seems to have changed his views in the past week and now seems eager to sign a bill. White House insiders say he believes his party will be unharmed by its provisions because of the GOP´s huge advantage over the Democrats in raising regulated hard money, especially since the Senate bill doubles the limit on individual donations, raising it to $2,000.

Thus, it might be up to the federal judiciary to save our political freedoms from the despotic, incumbent-protecting legislation of a senator who still calls himself a conservative despite having lurched to the left for the past two years. The late Sen. Barry Goldwater, that principled defender of our freedoms whose seat Mr. McCain now holds, must be rolling in his grave.

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