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Reform's Obstacle Course

October 2, 1997



The outlook for campaign finance reform legislation remains dim. But there is a path through the political obstacle course laid out by Senate opponents.

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First, push aside the "poison pill" amendment offered by Senate majority leader Trent Lott. Mr. Lott's proposal - banning the use of union dues for political purposes without consent of the dues payers - deserves consideration. But Lott's purpose is not only to protect union members' freedom of choice, but to kill the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. The Democrats, with strong ties to unions, would abandon that bill if it carried the Lott amendment. Reform-minded Republicans should join Democrats in tabling the amendment.

Second, lay to rest the argument of reform opponents that McCain-Feingold's ban on "soft money" - unlimited contributions to party organizations - is an unconstitutional constraint on free speech. The opponent's favorite text, the 1976 Supreme Court Buckley v. Valeo decision, settles the matter. There, the court upheld restrictions on campaign contributions, noting that they only marginally hindered political speech and served a significant government interest in eliminating "the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system of permitting unlimited financial contributions...."

Limits on campaign spending, however, were viewed by the court as infringing the First Amendment. That brings us to McCain-Feingold's other major provision: a restriction on the pre-election use of so-called "issue advertising" that clearly calls for the defeat or election of a candidate. These ads are typically aired by advocacy groups. Reformers see the ads as simply another way around campaign contribution limits. Groups or individuals can put their money in these ads instead of into party coffers. That's a strong point, but the legal ground is admittedly less firm here than with the soft-money ban.

If it passes, McCain-Feingold will inevitably face legal challenges. That's no reason to defeat it. The goals served by this legislation - blocking the purchase of influence and access, and restoring public faith in the system - far outweigh its possible flaws.