But suddenly the Democrats have discovered that big campaign donations aren’t evil after all - not if they’re flowing into Democratic coffers, that is. In fact, the Democrats now apparently share U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s belief that such donations are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.
On Wednesday the House narrowly approved a bill that would limit the amount of money wealthy contributors could give to groups that were exempted from the McCain-Feingold law. The Democrats were shocked and appalled by this blatant attempt to limit speech.
A story in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., rose to denounce the bill, saying it would “curtail the free speech rights of millions of Americans.”
When Sen. McConnell talked this way about McCain-Feingold, he was called the “Darth Vader” of campaign finance. Democrats and their allies in the press cynically dismissed the senator’s crusade against the campaign spending limits as an effort to protect the flow of “soft money” from fat-cat donors to the Republican Party.
But in the new mythology of the Democrats, the fat cats have been magically transformed into ordinary Americans trying to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Rep. Lofgren talked about the rights of “millions of Americans,” but he probably was most concerned with the rights of a very select group of people. You see, a loophole in the McCain-Feingold law allowed 527 groups - tax-exempt organizations that raise money to influence federal elections - to receive huge donations from individuals like billionaire George Soros, who gave $23 million during the 2003-2004 election cycle to groups supporting Democratic candidates.
Campaign finance reform advocates say 25 people gave a whopping $145 million to 527 groups. Keep in mind that the McCain-Feingold law was supposed to stop billionaires and well-financed interest groups from “buying” elections. Obviously, someone forgot to tell George Soros to put away his checkbook.
Political groups aligned with the Democrats raised $266 million in 2003-2004. The Republican 527s fell far short of that figure, raising a total of about $144 million.
That’s why Democrats want to make sure that Soros and the Hollywood entertainment industry moguls who poured millions into the presidential campaign of John Kerry don’t lose their free speech rights. But the truth is, the Democrats have little reason to worry. As McConnell repeatedly advised his colleagues during the debate on McCain-Feingold, it’s futile to attempt to control the flow of money in politics - like water flowing downhill, it will find its way around any obstacle.
The campaign finance restrictions favored by most of the Republicans in the House would not apply to other nonprofit groups called 501c(4)s. Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who, like Sen. McConnell, believes the campaign finance reform movement is a misguided effort to control speech, said that if the House restrictions on contributions to 527 groups become law “we’ll be standing here having the same debate in a couple of years about how to regulate 501c(4)s.”
There is one surefire way to limit the influence of political donors - repeal the First Amendment and let the government control political campaigns. In upholding the McCain-Feingold law, the Supreme Court said, in effect, that limitations on political speech are justified to prevent even the appearance of corruption.
The alternative to the suppression of speech is to allow everyone -George Soros, labor union members, the sponsors of the “Swift Boat” ads that damaged Kerry, environmental activists and so on - to contribute freely to campaigns, but with the requirement that all donations must be fully reported so that the public can decide whether the candidates are being unduly influenced by campaign money.
It’s time for the reformers to confess that campaign money isn’t evil - it’s the necessary means to the end of communicating ideas to voters.
- The Paducah (KY) Sun