Taxing free speech is a crime of the ruling political class

October 10, 1999|By GEORGE WILL

WASHINGTON -- The Senate this week revisits campaign finance reform, making another attempt to broaden regulation, by the political class, of public communication about that class. So consider remarks Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat, made during debate on the House version of speech regulation, the Shays-Meehan bill.

Her husband, a congressman, died in October 1997. In January 1998, she finished first in an all-party primary, and in March she won a runoff to complete the remainder of her husband's term. Then came the June primary for the November election. In November 1998, she won a full term.

Her arduous year -- four elections in 11 months -- included the involvement of issue advocacy groups that ran ads, some beneficial to her, some beneficial to her opponent. When praising Shays-Meehan she said:

"Last year . . . I endured four grueling elections and watched as wave after wave of attack ads flooded my district under the guise of informing voters. These ads distorted both my record and the record of my opponent. The Shays-Meehan bill effectively ends the misuse of issue advertising.

"It does so by requiring all ads which clearly urge the support or defeat of a candidate in a federal election to be treated like what they are, political ads."

She is right, and wrong. Many ads were distortions. But that does not justify expanding government policing of the "misuse" of political speech.

The political class understandably resents having lost control of the country's political conversation. In every election candidates have issues they want to stress or avoid.

Increasingly, interest groups use issue ads to force new subjects onto the political agenda. However, elections are not the political class' private property, and that class cannot construct a quasi-property right by regulating, as Shays-Meehan would, what can be said by interest groups about candidates in the months immediately before elections.

Looking for votes

Those regulations have been dropped from the Senate's version of reform, the McCain-Feingold bill, in an attempt to get the eight votes that were lacking last year when the bill's supporters failed to get cloture to bring the bill to a vote. However, by dropping those regulations, McCain-Feingold lost the support of one group of ardent speech-rationers, the League of Women Voters.

The Senate will debate campaign reform amid fresh reports about what reformers consider the intensifying "problem" of "too much money" in politics. The problem, reformers say in effect (when they are not lamenting the "apathy" of an electorate "disconnected" from politics), is too many people participating in politics by contributing too much to parties and candidates.

If fund raising continues at the current pace, candidates for the House, Senate and presidency will spend $3 billion in the 1999-2000 cycle, an $800 million increase over the 1995-96 presidential election cycle. But to put that $800 million -- in eight quarters -- in perspective: $655 million was spent on advertising on the Internet in just the last quarter of 1998.

That $3 billion would come to $14.60 per eligible voter for political communication about the determination of public policy -- about the presidential contest, 435 House contests and 34 Senate contests. Too much? By what standard?

If today's fund-raising pace is maintained, the two-year total for congressional races could be $1 billion. But before fainting, consider:

In a single year, last year, the nation's largest advertiser, General Motors Co., spent almost $3 billion communicating about its products. The 14th-largest advertiser, McDonald's, spent more than $1 billion communicating about food last year.

The Senate debate takes place after the Bush campaign's announcement that it has raised $56 million in seven months.

However, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal reports that in 1967-68 Eugene McCarthy, whose insurgent campaign against President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination lasted about seven months, raised $11 million. In current dollars, that is almost $53 million. And most of it came from five people.

Under the political-speech regulations put in place since then, it is impossible -- it is illegal -- to mount a McCarthy-style insurgency against the political status quo. The political class, which is the status quo, wants it that way.

Scarce resource

It is indeed wrong that the political class must spend so much time raising money. It also is that class' fault: It has not repealed the $1,000 limit on contributions imposed, unindexed to inflation, 25 years ago. That limit has created an artificial scarcity of something -- money -- that is stupendously plentiful in booming America.

The political class could do what it most likes to do -- do itself a favor -- by deregulating political speech, including repeal of limits on political giving. Then Ms. Capps could more easily raise enough money to answer what she considers "misuses" of political speech.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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