If the Supreme Court could write a headline for its decision upholding the latest campaign-finance reform law, it might go like this:
Tell Congress it can further restrict the 'growing evil' of big money in politics
Indeed, Congress, as well as all political candidates running in 2004, need to be told that the job of protecting the integrity of the political process is not done. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which the high court's five-justice majority enthusiastically endorsed on Wednesday, is just one more legal dam trying to block the flood of money into campaigns.
The five justices sent coded messages in their decision that the court won't let the Constitution stand in the way of even more efforts to root out the corrupting influence of large donors trying to buy access and influence in government. Indeed, they referred to this law as "modest."
They also stated that they were "under no illusion that BCRA will be the last congressional statement on the matter. Money, like water, will always find an outlet. What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day."
That day is already here, with both Democrats and Republicans directing corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals to give millions to private advocacy groups mostly for TV ads aimed at electing or defeating candidates.
Since it took effect in November 2002, the BCRA has helped keep big money as far out of the hands of politicians as possible, and forced candidates to raise more money through small donations. Money is not speech, as the court noted, and Congress - which knows better than the court about the corrosive influence of big donations - can continue to set up even more barriers without impinging on the First Amendment.
Voters need to be alert: This ruling will stir up almost every advocacy group in Washington to block further reform. Their ability to throw large sums at election campaigns should be the next target of reformers.
Still, campaign-finance reform has been steadily improved ever since President Theodore Roosevelt led Congress to bar corporations from giving money to federal candidates in 1907.
But, the court noted this week, "reams of disquieting evidence" show rich donors still seek access in government, giving "rise to the appearance of corruption." The justices obviously want voters to know.