Campaign finance reform is all about “getting money out of politics.” Just ask any proponent and they’ll tell you. At eye-rolling, mind-numbing length.
As memes go, however, “getting money out of politics” is effective. It resonates. It sticks. But it isn’t entirely true. Money is, as Jesse Unruh famously said, “the mother’s milk of politics.” Money buys all sorts of things, from air time and mailers to plane tickets and polling data.
Money also buys access. Campaign finance reform, therefore, is about getting the wrong kind of money out of politics. And what’s that? It goes by many names and takes many forms.
“Corporate money.” “Special-interest money.” “Dark money.”
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Bad, all bad.
But political campaigning will always cost money. Money gets things done. Just try to run for office without any money and see how far you get. The goal of reform, then, is to replace “bad money” with “good money.” And “good money” invariably means taxpayer money with strings attached.
The House of Representatives last week passed House Resolution 1, which Democrats cleverly dubbed the “For the People Act.” Vote against “the people” at your peril, Republicans! Which they did, and rightly so.
As reform measures go, HR 1 is a liberal’s dream, with a laundry list of measures intended to regulate the snot out of political campaigns. It imposes expansive new rules on what campaigns and their allies may say, as well as where, how and to whom they may say it.
Which makes the bill an abomination, constitutionally speaking.
The Constitution, being a document with a bias toward individual freedom, has a way of undermining all manner of wide-eyed and dangerous ideas disguised as “reforms.” The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
Although that generally comes with some long-recognized caveats and exceptions, HR 1 is an especially brazen attempt to eviscerate the spirit and plain meaning of the text.
How bad is HR 1? So bad even the ACLU, which supports lots of bad ideas gussied up as democratic reforms, has come out against it – at least in its present form.
In a 13-page letter to the House Rules Committee earlier this month, the civil liberties group laid out everything that’s wrong with the bill. A number of provisions “would have the effect of harming our public discourse by silencing necessary voices that would otherwise speak out about the public issues of the day.”
But how could that be? Doesn’t the legislation simply aim to remove “bad money” and replace it with good money?
It’s a funny thing about “special interests.” Everybody – you, me, your dry cleaner, your ex – from time to time may find themselves interested in some question of public policy. Are you pro-life? Pro-choice? Do you favor gun control? Or maybe you prefer a maximal interpretation of the Second Amendment? Do you want more laws clamping down on greenhouse gas emissions? Do you enjoy off-roading? Do you like to fish? Do you like buying fresh eggs at farmers’ markets?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, have you ever given your time or money to a group that supports your position?
If so, then congratulations: You’re part of a special-interest group. HR 1 is not favorable to people like you.
Right now, the law regulates how much groups may spend on “express advocacy” – airing radio ads, for example – that urge Congress to pass or vote down a bill like HR 1. The “For the People Act” would regulate any speech, at any time, “that promotes or supports the candidate, or attacks or opposes an opponent of the candidate.”
How is that not unconstitutional on its face?
HR 1 also requires groups to disclose their donors if they engage in speech that merely mentions a candidate in the context of a public policy discussion. How on earth is that in the public interest?
It’s chilling. As the ACLU put it, “Advocacy groups speaking about the issues that matter most to them, like abortion or gun rights, may see no alternative but to steer far clear of the regulated zone to avoid penalties.”
It’s become an article of faith among Democrats and even some Republicans that if only we could get big money out of politics, American democracy would be restored to its former luster. If only we could limit how much money independent groups spend on political campaigns, our politics would be free from the scourge of “special interests.”
But even if all of that were true – a highly contentious “if” – we’d have to surrender our freedom of speech to do so. Don’t buy into “if only” fallacies and phony promises “for the people.”