To what can the orgasmic sound of Congress protecting itself from the sin of tainted campaign contributions be compared? It's like the owner of a house of ill repute who, during a raid by the vice squad, demonstrates her commitment to civic virtue by firing the piano player.
Lest we forget (and a majority of the House last week apparently did when it passed its version of a campaign finance reform bill), the Constitution says in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
What does "abridge" mean? It is defined in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as: "deprive; reduce in scope; diminish." No law means exactly what it says: no law. Congress is now crafting a law that will abridge the freedom of speech and reduce the ability of people to redress their grievances. The act is unconstitutional on its face.
With the exception of a provision that requires full disclosure by radio and TV stations about who is paying for political advertising, the rest of the bill is seriously flawed. Among other things, it would prohibit unions, corporations and some interest groups from broadcasting certain types of political ads within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. But this is precisely the time period when most voters begin paying attention to a campaign. To deprive them of access to perspectives from various sources is to abridge the information voters need to thoughtfully choose among candidates.
Proponents of "campaign finance reform" say that money has corrupted the system. No, it hasn't; otherwise, everyone who receives campaign donations would be corrupted. Corrupt people will always find ways to get money. They did following the "Watergate reforms" nearly 30 years ago, and they will if this bill becomes law. Besides, whose money is it? The organizations and unions who donate to campaigns receive the money from their members and supporters. If donors don't like what's being done with their money, they can replace their leaders or stop giving.
During the last presidential campaign and more recently, President Bush has stated his position on campaign finance reform. His first priority, as he wrote to then-Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last March, was to "protect rights of individuals to participate in democracy." This bill fails to do that. The president also said that reform should not "favor any one party over another or incumbents over challengers." The new bill does both and proof of its lack of sincerity is a provision that delays enforcement until after this November's election. If campaign cash is so evil and corrupting, why not stop the flow immediately, as one defeated amendment to the measure sought to do?
President Bush should veto this bill if it reaches his desk. He can explain why and answer the demagoguery that will follow from the self-styled "reformers," many of whom take money they say is corrupting.
There's nothing wrong, and much that is right, with people participating in democracy through organizations ranging in perspective from the liberal ACLU to the conservative National Right to Life. Both groups oppose the new bill.
Free speech does not guarantee anyone the right to be heard but it does guarantee the right of the speaker to speak and not be silenced. For some, free speech means standing on a street corner and shouting that the president (or a member of Congress) is a fool or a crook. For others, it means buying TV and radio time in support of, or in opposition to, an incumbent or challenger. The answer to the problems that have arisen in political campaigns is not less speech, but more. All contributions to candidates and parties should be immediately disclosed and published on Web pages. That would enhance accountability and the public good. The airlines do this with frequent flier miles, which are posted on the same day passengers fly.
There may be other ways to right the wrongs of campaign financing, such as term limits, but violating the Constitution is not one of them. This bill protects incumbents and deprives voters of their constitutional rights.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.