Grass(roots) dies when sun shines too brightly

Jeff Patch Contributor
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The Center for Competitive Politics has made it no secret that we think a campaign finance bill written behind closed doors by the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the past chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—and a President facing a re-election campaign in 2012—might not really be about good government, as they claim.

Writing the rules of political speech to favor their interests once they reach the highest levels of power isn’t exclusive to Democrats, though.

In 2004 the Republicans tried to ban 527s because they worried the groups could disadvantage President Bush’s re-elect campaign. Center for Competitive Politics Chairman Brad Smith fought that last battle—and won—from the dais of the Federal Election Commission, organizing a bipartisan coalition against a proposal intended to ban groups such as George Soros’ Media Fund from criticizing President Bush. Onerous campaign finance regulation isn’t just a defective dream of the modern Democratic Party, it’s a siren call to incumbents: limit the political spending of outside groups and challengers and re-election campaigns become much easier.

For years the good government lobby (the “goo-goos”) were the only ones aggressively working on campaign finance policy. The Center for Competitive Politics was founded in 2005 by Brad Smith and Steve Hoersting, a campaign finance lawyer who previously served as Smith’s chief counsel at the FEC. Their goal was to change that disparity. Self-styled reform groups were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fund research, lobby Congress and go to court to implement a Rubix cube of regulation governing political speech. Smith decided the grassroots needed a similar group to counter the goo-goos.

Along with fellow travelers such as the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice and liberal groups such as the ACLU, we combat the notion that if Members of Congress shut everyone else up to give themselves monopolistic control of the debate in elections, a utopian democracy free of corruption will sprout from the ashes of our flawed constitutional republic.

We’re the David in this struggle for liberty in politics. On Goliath’s team are a vast array of lobbying organizations. Entities devoted to pushing campaign finance regulations include an alphabet soup of advocacy corporations: Americans for Campaign Reform, Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy21, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

In the last few decades, virtually all of these speech police-loving groups have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars of what they call “soft money”—unlimited, unregulated and (usually) undisclosed money to influence the political and legislative process. They’re just hypocritically doing it to take away that First Amendment right for others.

Against a sea of “solutions” for how government should craft schemes to “protect democracy,” the Center for Competitive Politics stands for a simple yet radical proposition: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech”—means exactly what it says. Campaign finance laws that restrict Americans’ right to broadcast political speech—no matter if the speakers are billionaires or busboys—should be repealed or simplified.

Here’s a silver-bullet solution that ultimately divides liberals and libertarians: the way to curb corruption in politics is to give politicians control over fewer things. Instead Americans get gimmicky, political stunts like the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections” Act. “Get It?” Sen. Chuck Schumer asked reporters at last Thursday’s press conference in front of the Supreme Court.

The quintessential quote of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—he penned the rallying cry of reformers: “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”—should apply to government, not private associations. At its zenith, transparency in government spending and large contributions to candidates’ coffers allows the public and press to serve as the watchdogs of democracy.

But forcing grandpa to put his mug shot on a Sierra Club ad if he’s the largest donor for the spot or effectively giving an enemies list of opponents planning on spending money to the political directors of the RNC and DNC does not “disinfect” the political process. It degrades the competitiveness of elections, favoring incumbents and large interests over insurgent challengers and rag-tag grassroots groups.

The Center for Competitive Politics will continue making the case to the public, press and politicians that the First Amendment doesn’t say “Congress shall make 84 or 94 pages of law… abridging the freedom of speech—because it’s an election year.”

Perhaps, if the regulatory lobby gets their way, we could remove the influence of money in Washington—maybe by mandating that candidates take a vow of poverty.

Jeff Patch is communications director for the Center for Competitive Politics.