- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

“I don’t think we ought to have 527s,” President Bush said the other day, referring to the political fund-raising and advocacy organizations that have sprouted in the wake of his signing the anti-free speech McCain-Feingold campaign-finance “reform” law in 2002, which the Supreme Court upheld last year. The president added, “I think [527s] are bad for the system.” As this space has argued often, the president was wrong to sign the McCain-Feingold bill. And he is wrong to oppose the 527 political organizations.

In many respects, the 527 groups represent the personification of the First Amendment, which unambiguously declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Effectively, 527s, which are named after the IRS section that governs them, are de facto political organizations through which their members exercise their right to assemble peaceably.

People exercise their free-speech rights by expressing their ideas in forums that permit the widest dissemination. (What good is freedom of speech if the words cannot be heard by as many people as possible?) Today, television and radio represent the most effective forums for speech. An especially odious provision of McCain-Feingold was its section that attempted to specifically limit these avenues of communication by placing restrictions on so-called “electioneering communications” at the very moment they would be most effective — during the months immediately preceding an election. (What good is free speech if it can be exercised only during periods when it is likely to have the least impact?)

In recent years, the national political parties funded hundreds of millions of dollars worth of issue ads (now called “electioneering communications”) with soft money, which the parties collected in unlimited (but fully disclosed) amounts from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. As it happened, both major parties proved to be equally adept at raising soft money. From 1999 through 2002, for example, the Democratic national party committees raised $491 million in soft money, while their Republican counterparts raised $500 million. In an effort to eliminate this source of political-speech funding, McCain-Feingold prohibited national political party committees from receiving soft money after the 2002 elections.

Believing that America’s body politic benefits from more political speech as opposed to less, we feared that McCain-Feingold would at least partly succeed in limiting this indispensable democratic ingredient. The subsequent proliferation of 527s has exploited a major loophole in the egregious McCain-Feingold restrictions. To this extent, they are to be welcomed. Much of the soft money that once flowed to political parties has now been diverted to the 527s.

Believing that stronger political parties were much preferable to weaker ones, we were quite comfortable with the previous role parties played as the collectors and dispensers of soft money. This was particularly so, given that so many other factors in recent decades had already weakened the party system. Political parties, after all, probably represent the ultimate form of political association. But if the alternative to political parties’ raising soft money were McCain-Feingold’s achieving success in its ostensible attempt to eliminate soft money altogether, we gladly welcome the arrival of the second-best option — the self-empowerment of other interest groups under the 527 umbrella.

Watching the 527 evolutionary process, we have frequently expressed a major concern. To wit, only one side of the political dialogue seemed to “get it.” Demonstrating how truly hypocritical congressional Democrats were in their condemnation of soft money throughout the years of campaign-finance debate, liberals were the first to exploit the 527 soft-money loophole. Among the 20 largest 527s, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 18 are clearly Democratic-oriented, outraising the two Republican-oriented 527s by $135.4 million to $8.5 million. Finally bringing some balance to this one-sided trend, the Progress for America Voter Fund, a Republican-oriented 527, announced this week that it had recently raised $35 million and expected to raise and spend a total of $125 million by Election Day. Other conservative 527s are also forming.

At least through this election cycle, robust free speech from both ends of the political spectrum will apparently survive McCain-Feingold’s efforts to stifle it.

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