Money Without Strings

The Supreme Court affirmed in a decision this week that it will enforce an important distinction in government efforts to curb the flow of money into federal political campaigns.

Anyone spending money for a campaign will remain protected under the constitutional right of free speech. But anyone contributing to a campaign can be subject to federal regulation.

Why the distinction? A majority of the court believes money from campaign donors can "obligate" a politician to work on their behalf, breeding corruption or the appearance of it. That concern overrides the right to free speech, much like laws that bar anyone from yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater.

The decision, made against the Republican Party of Colorado, could have a profound effect. Congress is the closest it has been in recent memory to passing a significant campaign-finance reform bill. The heart of that bill is a ban on unlimited contributions to political parties - the proliferating "soft money."

The court's ruling didn't concern soft money. Rather, it involves "hard" money given to parties under caps set by law. But the reasoning of the five-justice majority supports the logic of reformers. Justice David Souter's majority opinion memorably describes political parties as "agents for spending on behalf of those who seek to produce obligated officeholders."

In essence, when parties coordinate with candidates to spend money from donors who want, and probably expect, future influence, the parties are an extension of the donor.

Such coordinated expenditures can rightly be limited, said the court, in refusing to strike down a provision of federal law that does just that.

It shouldn't be much of a leap from that conclusion to upholding a campaign-finance reform law that bans soft money, which is ostensibly collected for "party building," but much of which actually goes to back candidates. At the least, this ruling should give pause to reform opponents who proclaim the new law won't pass constitutional muster.

The court is closely divided on this issue. So predictions of how it will decide in the future have to be hedged. A minority on the court sees any restriction on party spending as breaching free speech and views corruption concerns as purely theoretical.

But the financing scandals that flowed from the 1996 presidential campaign, as well as the allegations currently facing Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, suggest there's more to this issue than theory. The court majority rightly recognizes that.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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