Memo to McCain: Free speech trumps campaign reform


WASHINGTON -- On the eve of this week's Senate debate on the regulation of political speech, also known as campaign finance reform, consider recent remarks by an ardent reformer, Sen. John McCain. His main aim is to outlaw "soft money" contributions -- money used for purposes other than advocating the election or defeat of particular candidates -- to political parties.

The Supreme Court says that because political money is essential to political communication, regulation of such money can only be justified by the compelling need to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof. Recently, Mr. McCain was asked if he or any other Republican he could name has ever been corrupted by the Republican National Committee. He replied:

"Not by the Republican National Committee, but all of us have been corrupted by the process where . . . where big money has bought access which has bought influence. Anybody who glances at the so-called 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act and then looks at the results, which are increases in cable rates, phone rates, mergers and lack of competition, clearly knows that the special interests are protected in Washington and the public interest is submerged."

He was asked again if soft money to the party "leads to the corruption of Republicans." He said, "Of course."

Well. Contributors are indeed apt to have an advantage in gaining access to legislators. However, is this necessarily corruption?

Today legislators of both parties feel few compunctions about regulating the economy. By constantly putting their thumbs on the scales of economic justice, they become accomplices in what economists call "rent-seeking" -- the process whereby private parties try to bend public policy to their advantage.

But what are the various economic interests affected by legislation supposed to do? Should they maintain a decorous silence, trusting the legislators -- to act as Platonic guardians -- as unlobbied philosopher-kings in splendid isolation?

Understandably, economic interests usually spend substantially more on lobbying ($1.42 billion in 1998 alone) than is contributed in "hard" money ($781.3 million from all sources in the two-year election cycle 1997-98), and more is contributed in "hard" than in "soft" money ($242 million, 1997-98).

Besides, studies of legislative voting show that contributions are influenced much more by the tendencies of legislators, than legislators' tendencies are influenced by contributions.

Much of what Mr. McCain calls corruption is the inevitable nature of politics under the modern, regulatory state. He recoils viscerally, and admirably, against the rent-seeking process that does indeed define modern Washington. That recoil could make him a splendid proponent of truly limited government, which by limiting its wealth-determining activities would limit the incentive to invest money in politics.

Instead, his recoil from rent-seeking sends him in the opposite direction, toward enlarging the government in the most dangerous direction, as regulator of political advocacy. In any case, what has the making of the 1996 telecommunications bill to do with outlawing "soft money"? It is already illegal to use such money to influence a federal election. Such money is put into each party's "nonfederal account" for a variety of uses -- transfers to state parties, contributions to state and local candidates, voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts -- not tied to particular campaigns.

So: What evidence, aside from the fact that Mr. McCain (probably sensibly) does not like the pattern of winners and losers produced by the telecommunications act, does he have that "soft" money shaped the act? Whatever the defects of the act or of the process that produced it, those defects are no reason to make the existing regime of speech-rationing even worse.

In the 1997-98 election cycle, when Mr. McCain was, as he is now, chairman of the Commerce Committee (which produced the telecommunications bill), and was running for re-election, communications and other interests with business before his committee contributed large sums to his Senate campaign. Today communications interests have contributed more than any other business category to his presidential campaign.

There is no reason to question Mr. McCain's rectitude generally, or to suspect that he has been "corrupted" by such contributions. Still, he is worried about being, or appearing to be, corrupted. However, instead of adding to the government's regulation of speech, he could spurn such money. But that would be unfortunate, because it would effectively limit his political speech, which is bracing and admirable, at least when he is not talking about limiting political speech.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/07/99

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