Campaign Finance Reform Supports Intent Of First Amendment

16 February 2001

By Stentor Danielson

The Senate kicked off two weeks of debate on campaign finance reform on Monday, giving hope to people who think intervention is necessary to reduce the influence of money on politics. The even Democrat-Republican split in the Senate and the consequent emboldening of centrist leaders like John McCain (R-Az.) increases the likelihood of passing the reform bill sponsored by McCain and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Opponents of campaign finance reform have not given up. Many Senators, as well as President Bush, simply support (or claim to support) reform in principle but find problems with the particular composition of the McCain-Feingold bill or the competing, less drastic measure proposed by Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). But a substantial amount of opposition to reform of any kind is rooted in the notion that it violates the First Amendmentís protection of free speech. Equating spending unlimited money with free speech misses the point of the First Amendment and endangers democracy.

The intent of the First Amendment is to prevent the silencing of dissent. For a democracy to work, it must permit challenge. The First Amendment was written so that I could write ďGeorge W. Bush is a moronĒ without fearing anything more than a scolding from our President. It defends the individual from that conservative anathema, the "tyranny of the majority."

An unregulated campaign finance system does just the opposite. It entrenches the views of those for whom our system is working, while silencing those who are not served well by our society. Those who most need to "petition the government for redress of grievances" are least able to do so, because (as a result of those grievances) they are deprived of the financial means to effectively voice their views.

Campaign finance reform would not stop anyone from expressing his opinions. What it would stop is the situation in which one personís opinion is more important than another personís simply because the first person can afford to pay more money to politicians. The current system perpetuates the kind of rule by the rich elite that democracy was supposed to eliminate.

The basic principle of democracy is that everyone is equal, and therefore should have an equal say in government. But under an unreformed system, everyoneís say is not equal. The chairman of the board of a leading company may casually write a check for $20,000 while a struggling single mother may only be able to spare $20. That $20 voice would barely register on a political radar scanning for thousand dollar donations. The chairmanís voice in politics and the motherís are clearly not going to be equal, even if they both care with equal vehemence about the issues that confront our nation. Limiting contributions limits the ability of the rich to out-shout the poor.

Another key idea to remember is that freedom of speech, as conceived by the framers or our Constitution, immersed in Enlightenment philosophy, was an individual right. It is the individual who is entitled to speak freely. A key component of campaign finance reform, the prohibition of soft money donations by unions and corporations, would defend this principle.

Corporations, unions and other collectives and organizations are not individuals. They do not and should not get a vote on Election Day, whereas every individual should and in theory does. Therefore, the First Amendment does not protect speech by a group.

If each member of a union wishes, he or she may still donate his or her $1,000 to a party. The members may meet to plan and organize their individual donations. But the union may not claim that money in dues and pay it to the company.

Soft money from groups is in fact another case of "tyranny of the majority." By allowing the majority within the organization to use the organizationís money for political goals, a system of unregulated soft money increases the voice of the powerful majority. Freedom of speech, on the other hand, is meant to strengthen the voice of the minority. Campaign finance reform, then, is faithful to the intent of the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment is an important principle. But it is important precisely because it upholds the higher goal of democracy. Democracy means one person, one vote. Each citizenís voice in government is the same; no one is more important than anyone else. An unreformed campaign finance system violates the intent of the free speech provision of the First Amendment by making the speech of those with money more important than the speech of those without money.

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