A Win for Democracy

The long-overdue campaign finance reform law will help give citizens a stronger voice

When President George W. Bush signed the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2002” in January, the occasion was met with fanfare so great that he held media-blitz rallies in three different states in one day to trumpet his new legislative achievement and to share the victory with the bill’s legislative sponsors, including Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56 (D-Mass.).

On Thursday, when Bush signed the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” Representative Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) got a very different reception. The indefatigable House sponsor of the bill—who, with Republican sponsor Christopher M. Shays of Connecticut, worked for years to craft the language of the bill, and then months to get the requisite number of signatures to discharge the measure from committee—got only a phone call from an aide as the president rushed off to a fundraising event in South Carolina. The press was not even allowed to photograph Bush signing the bill.

Despite the cold shoulder Bush gave the measure, campaign finance reform represents a significant effort at getting the all-powerful big donors out of politics. The new law bans the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations, unions and individuals contribute to national political parties in unregulated “soft money” and doubles the amount of “hard money” that individuals are allowed to give directly to campaigns. More controversially, the law also bans the broadcasting of thinly-veiled “issue ad” television commercials that often disparage one candidate’s “stances” while not explicitly endorsing either figure. Because these spots are intentionally aired just before the election, candidates have very little opportunity to reply to the charges, accurate or otherwise, leveled against them.

While the law itself will not go into effect until Nov. 6, the first lawsuits against the bill were filed hours after its signing. The first complaint came from the National Rifle Association, which claimed the law “eviscerates the core protections of the First Amendment by prohibiting, on pain of criminal punishment, political speech.” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed a separate claim on similar grounds. The lawsuits will go before a Washington, D.C. Circuit Appeals Court before one of them most likely moves to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The irony of these free speech claims is that campaign finance reform’s entire purpose is to increase the power of free speech for ordinary Americans who have had their views overwhelmed by the massive contributions and vicious “issue” attack ads of union and corporate interests. The judiciary should deal with this matter expeditiously given the longstanding restrictions on campaign contributions that are already in place. This new law simply updates and reinforces widely accepted principles by eliminating several loopholes left by the campaign finance reform legislation of the 1970s.

It is greatly troubling that it took the exposure of Enron’s corruption to provide the impetus for Congress to act on campaign finance. An incredible number of politicians received campaign contributions from Enron, but it was only the public backlash after its collapse that provided the motivation for lawmakers.

While no law will ever be able to change the reality that money talks in Washington, this measure will take away the megaphones so that maybe, just maybe, our leaders will be able to hear themselves think again.