One man's futile stab at finance reform

March 28, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Democrat Fritz Hollings, at 79 still the junior senator from South Carolina behind ageless (actually 98-year-old) Republican Strom Thurmond, stood alone on the Senate floor the other afternoon, figuratively spitting into the wind.

With none of the other 99 senators in sight, Mr. Hollings proposed at length a constitutional amendment intended to solve the dispute over campaign finance reform. But, as Mr. Hollings well knew, there was no chance whatever of Senate approval.

The hot issue of what to do about out-of-control campaign fund-raising and spending had dominated the Senate with lively debate for more than a week. Nevertheless, Mr. Hollings' offering had driven everyone but the venerable, silver-haired South Carolinian for cover. They wanted no part of his non-starter, which proposed, to them, the unthinkable -- in effect, amending the First Amendment itself, the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

Specifically, Mr. Hollings was asking the Senate to undo the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo, in which it ruled that while limits could be placed on political contributions, any restriction on what a candidate could spend would violate his free-speech protection.

Reduced to a slogan -- money is no more than an enhancer of free speech -- the Buckley decision is a loophole in campaign-finance law that cries out for reversal. Or, as Mr. Hollings put it, "Those with money have free speech, and those without it have lockjaw." The decision, he told the empty chamber, changes the constitutional mandate of "`one man, one vote,' to `one dollar, one vote.'"

Mr. Hollings' amendment proposed simply: "Congress shall have power to set reasonable limits on the amount of contributions that may be accepted by, and the amount of contributions that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal office." It would also empower states to do the same regarding state and local offices.

Although Mr. Hollings stood alone in the Senate putting forward his amendment, five other senators had joined him as co-sponsors, including fellow Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In a while, he wandered onto the floor to add his flowery rhetoric to the lost cause.

Mr. Hollings attacked head-on the notion that the First Amendment was sacrosanct. He noted a number of limitations on free speech that had passed constitutional muster, from Theodore Roosevelt's limitations on corporate contributions in 1907 to Harry Truman's limits on union giving in 1947. He cited Supreme Court rulings against "calling `Fire!' in a crowded theater" and the unimpeded use of "fighting words," as well as federal regulation of obscenity.

The arch-enemy of campaign finance reform, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, walked onto the floor as Mr. Hollings was warming up to his constitutional amendment, but quickly headed out the door. He missed Mr. Hollings reading from two Congressional Records of 1987 in which Mr. McConnell himself had proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overridden another aspect of the Buckley decision that said a candidate could spend as much of his own money as he pleased on his own campaign.

Mr. Hollings, voice dripping with sarcasm, quoted Mr. McConnell: "These are constitutional problems demanding constitutional answers. This Congress should not hesitate, nor do I believe that it would hesitate, to directly address" the problems enumerated, including soft (unregulated) money. "I believe," McConnell said in 1987, "that this resolution, unlike most constitutional amendments, would zip through this body and zip through the state legislatures."

To nobody's surprise, when the vote on the Hollings amendment came, it was voted down, 56-40, with solid Republican opposition plus a few Democratic votes. Mr. Hollings had, at least, made the try with his direct challenge to Buckley vs. Valeo.

Now the piecemeal tinkering will go on, leaving it to reform lawyers to ask the Supreme Court to explain again why it's no violation of a contributors' free speech to limit what he or she can give, but it's unconstitutional to limit what the recipient candidate can spend.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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