Big Money Is Not Free Speech

From the get-go, the new campaign-finance law that President Bush signed this year was going to be legally challenged.

Now it's in the courtroom, with high-profile lawyers on both sides battling its high-stakes merits and demerits before a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. From there, it will no doubt go on to the Supreme Court.

From the examples of pay-for-policy aired in the courtroom this week, let's hope the Supreme Court ultimately upholds this law, and does not side with those who argue that restricting unlimited donations ("soft money") to political parties violates free speech.

Take this bit of evidence from testimony filed in the case this week, from instructions on a Democratic National Committee "call sheet" for contacting Glaxo/Smith/Kline pharmaceuticals: "We have a major issue on the Hill on patent rights ... please ask for $35,000."

Or a 1999 document, in which a pharmaceutical umbrella organization is planning for a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), who at the time oversaw the Food and Drug Administration. The memo cites the group's status as "a solid supporter that had pledged $200K to the NRSC" [National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Mr. McConnell chaired at the time].

Both parties spent nearly half a billion dollars in the 1999-2000 election cycle. Soft money accounted for some 40 percent of those total funds. And here's a clincher: Some $300 million in soft money was contributed by just 800 donors, with one donor chipping in $6 million.

The high court's last big ruling on campaign finance was in 1976. It imposed limits on donations to federal candidates, but said limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional - that money was a form of free speech. But with the explosion of soft money since then, couldn't a case be made that big money has drowned out the voices of many Americans?

The new law is like a city noise ordinance. It will help all to be heard in Washington, and not just those who can pay to make a very loud noise to needy politicians. Money corrupts, and absolute freedom to buy favors corrupts absolutely.

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