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Finance reform under fire

Liberal Democrats tried to boost prospects for campaign-finance reform last week by casting doubt on challenges to the bill by free-speech groups. But the chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, which was holding hearings on it, said those attacks only reinforced his doubts about the reforms.

At issue are limitations on soft-money contributions and the banning of attack ads often purchased with them. Most broadcasters oppose such limitations, either on speech grounds or because they could eat into the advertising windfall.

Rep. John Conyers and other top Judiciary Committee Democrats appeared surprised last week by the strident attacks on reform by the American Civil Liberties Union but suggested that the group's current leadership doesn't reflect the true views of the organization.

"I want to thank you for forcing me to undergo many more hours of study," the Michigan lawmaker said sarcastically after ACLU President Nadine Strossen launched a broadside against the reform proposals.

Conyers, the panel's senior Democrat, then demanded that subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot add the comments of nine former ACLU leaders supporting campaign-reform plans into the official record of the days' events.

"We should not live in a society where those with the most dollars monopolize the debate," added Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

But Strossen insisted that the leading plans would severely limit the ACLU and others from getting their views out during campaigns. "What this legislation does is make it a crime for citizens and citizens groups to criticize our government," she said.

Chabot (R-Ohio), who picked the witnesses for the hearing, said their testimony—three of four had Constitutional problems with the reforms—reinforced his position: "The tension between some campaign-finance proposals and the First Amendment is clear."

Legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) would ban soft money, which is not earmarked for specific candidates but often funneled to their campaigns. The House also is expected to vote on its version of the Senate's McCain-Feingold bill, which would ban ads attacking any candidate 60 days before an election unless paid for by hard- money contributions, provided specifically to a candidate or political action committee. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has promised a floor debate and vote on the issue when lawmakers return after the July 4 break.

Imposing restrictions so close to election time is bad, Strossen said, because that's when voters pay the most attention. Instead, she urged lawmakers to allow more public funding and to extend to challengers the practice of "franking," which allows lawmakers to send mail to constituents without paying for postage.

James Bopp, general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech, said neither piece of legislation would pass court review: "I believe the provisions of McCain-Feingold are not only unconstitutional but bad public policy."

Glenn Moramarco, senior attorney for New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, was the only one of the four witnesses to support the reform proposals.

The leading reform plans are crafted narrowly enough to avoid constitutional problems, he said. According to a Brennan Center study of more than 2,100 ads aired 300,000 times in the 75 largest media markets during the 1998 federal campaign, only 3,100 airings would have violated the McCain-Feingold restrictions.