Ben Boychuk

Pilot has gumption, Clinton has chutzpah – neither has a campaign finance reform plan

A police officer flashes a thumbs-up after inspecting the gyrocopter a Florida postal carrier landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The pilot said he wanted to draw attention to campaign finance corruption.
A police officer flashes a thumbs-up after inspecting the gyrocopter a Florida postal carrier landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The pilot said he wanted to draw attention to campaign finance corruption. The Associated Press

Doug Hughes is a 61-year-old mailman from Ruskin, Fla. Hillary Clinton is a 67-year-old politician from Chappaqua, N.Y. Both say they’re keenly interested in removing the corrupting influence of money from politics.

Neither of them is serious.

I don’t mean to say Citizen Hughes lacks sincerity or gumption. On Wednesday, he piloted a gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, where he landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to the shock and awe of bystanders and the Secret Service.

Hughes wanted to deliver letters of protest to all 535 members of Congress, though the thought had crossed his mind over the couple of years he planned the stunt that he might get shot out of the sky first. Seconds after touching down, he was taken into custody.

If Hughes had managed to deliver his letters, here’s what the interns who open the mail would have read: “I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence. As a member of Congress, you have three options. 1. You may pretend corruption does not exist. 2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. 3. You may actively participate in real reform.”

Stirring stuff. But what is “real reform” exactly? Hughes is a bit fuzzy on that.

He’s certain that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission needs to go. Beyond that, his website mentions “Free and Fair Elections (without fraud),” “Shutting down the control of Special Interests and Lobbyists,” “End profiteering by Congress while in office” and – those magic words – “Campaign Finance Reform.”

The day before Hughes’ daring flight, Clinton was traveling around Iowa, chatting with “ordinary” citizens who had been carefully selected and chauffeured to her events.

“I think it’s fair to say that ... the deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top,” she said without the scarcest hint of irony.

Earlier in the day, Clinton told The Washington Post that she wanted to fix the country’s “dysfunctional” campaign finance system, “even backing a constitutional amendment if necessary.”

Like the high-flying Hughes, the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady was vague on the particulars. “We do have a plan,” she told The Post. “We have a plan for my plan.”

Plan for a plan or not, this much is certain: Clinton is so enthusiastic about tamping down the influence of big money in politics that she’s willing to raise $2.5 billion to ensure she’s elected to do something about it.

Demands for reform are meaningless without details. As it happens, we have a fair idea of what campaign finance “reform” would look like.

To back a “constitutional amendment if necessary” requires repealing and replacing the First Amendment. The U.S. Senate last year debated a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, that would give Congress and states the unfettered power to “regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents” in elections.

Udall offers a fig leaf to the media in section 3: “Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress the power to abridge the freedom of the press.” But that’s not much of a guarantee at all.

Remember, a political film that happened to be unfavorable toward Clinton was at issue in the Citizens United case. When then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan defended the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law before the high court, she couldn’t say one way or the other whether the FEC could actually ban books. The law left the door open.

But the First Amendment offers a clear and unambiguous answer, free of legal obfuscation: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Be careful what you wish for, reformers. It’s understandable that Hillary would want to shut up her critics. Her penchant for secrecy is legendary, and she hardly speaks with the press as it is.

But is a vastly expanded regulatory regime really why Hughes flew his gyrocopter to Congress? It sure looks that way. I’m glad the Florida mailman survived his flight, but I hope his cause crashes and burns.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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