Campaign-finance laws can be viewed as a crucial valve in the machinery of democracy. Money flows into politics because people believe in a party's or a candidate's ideas. It also flows because officeholders make important decisions, and lots of people would like a chance to influence those decisions.
Effective laws preserve the free-speech element in political campaigns without encouraging the corruptive tendencies. That balance demands monitoring and frequent adjustment.
This job should belong to Congress. But with lawmakers at loggerheads over campaign-finance reform and with constitutional issues in play, the courts often take a hand in repairing - or dismantling - the laws.
In May, a federal district court in Denver ruled, in effect, that political parties can spend whatever it takes to get their candidates elected to Congress. That would nullify current law that limits party spending, and the Federal Election Commission is appealing. The case will probably reach the US Supreme Court next year.
But instead of waiting for that final resolution, the Republican Party is reportedly inclined to apply the Denver ruling nationwide - not just in the six states where the district court has jurisdiction. This portends a big increase in direct party spending - i.e., spending coordinated with candidates - in key congressional races.
The GOP should hold off. There's already no shortage of cash funneling into these races in a year when control of the next Congress is up for grabs. The purpose of the spending limits still on the books is to restrain, to a degree, the flow of corporate, union, and other special-interest money into campaigns through the conduit of the parties. Concerns about possible corruption lie behind the law.
The Supreme Court will have the final say whether those concerns justify some restriction on what the district court called the "First Amendment rights of political parties." Until it speaks, the parties should respect the current law.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society