- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001


In the fall of 1998, a frustrated Leo Smith watched as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to impeach then-President Bill Clinton. The Suffield, Conn., man didn't think much of the idea. So he designed a Web page in defense of Mr. Clinton, encouraging like-minded voters to defeat the re-election effort of Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson, who supported the impeachment effort. Visitors to the site might agree or disagree with him, but Mr. Smith had done his patriotic part for democratic debate and free speech. Who would dispute his right to do so?
Mrs. Johnson's Democrat opponent, that's who. Charlotte Koskoff's campaign advisers called Mr. Smith to express concern that his Web site might put him and her campaign in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. A subsequent advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) held that the Web site counted as an independent expenditure in favor of the Koskoff campaign and was therefore subject to federal election campaign reporting requirements. So much for democratic debate and grassroots participation in the political process. The irony, says FEC member Bradley Smith, is that by this interpretation there is in effect greater constitutional protection for Internet pornography than there is for Internet political speech.
It is Mr. Smith's mockery of existing campaign-finance regulations whether by anecdote or scholarship that makes his new book, "Unfree Speech," such a timely read. As the U.S. Senate takes up McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform this week, many of its critics will doubtlessly rely on Mr. Smith's findings to make their case against the bill. That prospect may help explain why campaign-reform proponents worked so hard to deny the author a high-profile position on the FEC in the first place. Editorial writers compared his nomination to the commission to nominating pornographer Larry Flynt, former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke and even to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczyinski. David Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, called his nomination a throwback "to the dark days of Watergate."
Given the sources of the criticism, this is high praise for Mr. Smith. His book does not disappoint. One by one, he dismantles the girders on which campaign-finance reform now stands.
Is there really too much money in today's campaigns? Hardly. In 1998, general election candidates spent $740 million over a two-year period. Although that spending set a record, it amounts to roughly $4 per eligible voter. Some predict that campaign spending in 2000 might reach as high $3 billion, a record for increase over the previous presidential cycle that ended in 1996. Even so that increase would amount to no more than about $15 per eligible voter.
Consider the matter from a different perspective. In 1994, California Rep. Michael Huffington spent the unheard of sum of $20 million to win a U.S. Senate race. (He lost.) Shortly after his campaign ended, Sony Music International announced plans to spend some $30 million to promote a Michael Jackson CD with the lyrics, "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me, kick me, kyke me, don't you black or white me." The following year, TV advertising for "Seinfeld" reruns yes, reruns reached $100 million. Costly promotion of dubious song lyrics and used TV shows is allowed, but promotion of political ideas and candidates isn't?
One response is that in a political context, money is a corrupting influence. Proponents of campaign-finance reform, unwilling or unable to cite a lawmaker corrupted by campaign donations, are content to claim that the system in general is the victim. For example, Common Cause (invariably described as a campaign watchdog group) put out a release noting that from 1989 to 1998, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had spent nearly $8.4 million on congressional campaigns. The implication was that the group had effectively bought votes. Mr. Smith points out that NRA spending amounted to roughly two-tenths of 1 percent of total congressional spending over that period, not exactly a monument of largesse. Common Cause and other critics would do better to focus on the 3 million NRA members who focus intently on gun-related issues at election time. "Groups that advocate gun control often complain that the NRA outspends them," says Mr. Smith, "but rarely mention that the NRA also outvotes them.
Still, there is a way to reduce campaign spending, says Mr. Smith. Reduce government power: "The more that government has the power to bestow benefits on the populace, or to regulate human endeavors, the greater the incentive for citizens to attempt to influence the government and the election of persons to fill government offices."
Mr. Smith is exactly right
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