- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

There's a story about Catholic priests who contracted to have a new church built for their congregation. When the church was completed, and just before the priests came for their final inspection, the contractor cemented a Buddhist statue in the center of the altar. Seeing the statue, the priests were incensed, demanding its removal before they would pay and take possession of the church. The contractor happily complied.

The contractor anticipated the priests' response, but that was a part of his agenda. He built the statue to divert the priests' attention from other possible shortcomings of the construction job. That's precisely what Congress has done with the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill that passed the House by 240-189 and is now before the Senate.

A primary provision in the bill is that it prohibits people and groups from running political ads in newspapers and broadcast media that refer to a particular candidate within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary election. As such, it is a clear violation of the Constitution's First Amendment, which says, "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech."

When the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, Shays-Meehan (H.R. 2356), they knew it violated the First Amendment. You say, "C'mon, Williams, congressmen would never knowingly violate the Constitution; they took an oath of office to uphold and defend it."

During the debate, Rep. Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, introduced an amendment that read: "Notwithstanding any provision of the Act, and in recognition of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, nothing in this Act may be construed to abridge those freedoms found in that Amendment, specifically the freedom of speech or of the press." The Hyde Amendment went down to crushing defeat.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark 1975 decision Buckley vs. Valeo, ruled, "So long as persons or groups eschew expenditures that in express terms advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views." Congress' campaign reform measure clearly violates the Constitution's First Amendment ,and they all know it. They fully expect the U.S. Supreme Court to rule parts of the bill unconstitutional but, like the contractor who built the Buddhist statue on the Catholic church altar, Congress is using the part that violates free speech to divert attention from other incumbent protection features of its campaign finance reform bill. That's why they made it "severable," meaning that if parts of it are ruled unconstitutional, the remainder becomes law.

Proponents of "campaign finance reform" make the flimflam argument that money has corrupted politics. If campaign finance reform becomes law, money will still go to politicians albeit by a different mechanism. The reason is simple: Members of Congress are in the business of granting favors and exacting tribute. If various interest groups want favors, they will find a way to get money to lawmakers. If CEOs want to pay tribute to protect their companies from harmful federal laws and regulations, they will find a way to get that tribute into the political coffers of a member of Congress.

The bottom line is that if politicians weren't in the business of granting favors and exacting tribute, every single issue surrounding campaign finance reform would be irrelevant. After all, why would anyone spend money for influence, access, favors and tribute if the only thing that politicians do is to live up to their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution? But, I'm afraid, most Americans want congressmen to do something else to violate the Constitution in order to make it possible for them to live at the expense of others.

Walter Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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