The Supreme Court struck the right chord this week in upholding a Missouri law that caps the contributions individuals can make to state political races. A solid 6 to 3 majority of the justices held that states have a right to set such limits in the interest of warding off corruption.
Critics of campaign-finance reform, who argue that political contributions are a form of speech, will lament the decision. But their position has logical and practical problems. As one of the concurring justices said, money is not speech, it's property. And a large transfer of that property to a political campaign carries an implicit, if not explicit, quid pro quo.
Justice David Souter, authoring the majority opinion, clearly identified the problem, and the rationale underlying contribution limits: "Most people assume - I do certainly - that someone making an extraordinarily large contribution is going to get something extraordinary in return." Governments have a duty, he argued, to respond to that perception, which can undermine a people's faith in its government.
The ruling clearly bolsters reformers. By sustaining the current federal limit on individual contributions - $1,000 - as well as state laws based on it, the decision validates efforts to impose further restraints.
But it won't still all controversy. Other campaign-funding cases are making their way in the courts. And this week's decision doesn't settle the hottest issue at the federal level - whether to ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to groups, often party-affiliated, that aren't tied to a particular candidate yet buy ads that benefit candidates.
The battle against soft money has been helped, however. Opponents of a ban invariably proclaim such a measure unconstitutional, a violation of First Amendment free-speech rights. The Souter opinion significantly undermines that position. Those in Congress who want to move forward with campaign-finance reform now have a clearer road.
Devising a political system with credible safeguards against corruption is critical to any democracy. In America, the work has gone on through much of our history. The court's role is a clarifying one, defining boundaries. The main task rightly rests with lawmakers, who must find the will to act in the public's interest.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society