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Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 1999 / 6 Tishrei, 5759

Jeff Jacoby

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Econophone

Silenced by Shays-Meehan

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IMAGINE:

It is September 2000. The election is less than two months away, and campaign finance "reform" has been the law of the land since January.

You never really followed the campaign-finance debates. Your issue is term limits. You believe that most of what's wrong with Washington is congressional careerism -- the fact that incumbents are nearly impossible to dislodge and are obsessed with getting reelected. That's why you joined Term Limits for Congress, an activist group that works on this issue.

As it happens, your congressman is none other than Martin Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who, with Republican Chris Shays of Connecticut, co-authored the campaign finance bill that passed the US House in September 1999 on a 252-177 vote. And on this morning a year later, you are reading a column in The Boston Globe.

"Meehan is a decent guy who turned into a conniving pol once he tasted power," the columnist writes. "When he first ran for Congress in 1992, he ardently championed term limits and promised to abide by them. `I favor limiting members of Congress to four terms,' Meehan said then, `and I commit to serve no longer than that even if term-limit legislation is not enacted.' " Time and again, he repeated that vow. In 1995, after his first re-election, he even sent a letter to the clerk of the US House saying that he would rather resign than break his word and run in 2000. But he lied. He's on the ballot again, running for the fifth term he swore he'd never pursue."

Great stuff, you're thinking. You know all about Meehan's deception, of course, and it makes your blood boil. Your very own congressman, a term-limits turncoat!

It turns out that your friends at Term Limits for Congress have read the column too, and have come up with an idea. They realize Meehan is going to be re-elected, but they at least want him know that his betrayal isn't forgotten. The TLC plan is to air a 60-second commercial on local radio stations quoting some choice passages from the newspaper column. "All of us lose when politicians break their word," the announcer will say at the end. "Marty Meehan, you let us down."

The commercial debuts on a Monday. On Wednesday, the radio stations inform you and your friends that the spot is being pulled. Meehan, it turns out, has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, accusing TLC of violating the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act. You protest to the station manager that everything in your ad is true, that it doesn't even call for Meehan's defeat.

"Sorry, fellas," the station manager says. "I agree with you about Meehan, but lawyer trouble is one thing I don't need."

You turn to your own lawyer. Can the government really censor a group of citizens who want to buy some radio time to talk about a candidate's record?

It can, he reports. Under Section 201(b) of the Shays-Meehan law, Congress has barred any organization from making a "communication" that refers "to one or more clearly identified candidates in a paid advertisement that is transmitted through radio or television within 60 calendar days preceding the date of an election." In other words, Congress has made it illegal for any interest group, within two months of Election Day, to so much as mention a candidate's name in a commercial!

You're floored. You thought Shays-Meehan was supposed to reform politics, not strangle it. Whatever happened to the First Amendment?

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging freedom of speech." Why is that columnist in The Boston Globe allowed to vent his opinion of Meehan when TLC isn't? Is it only journalists who have freedom of speech in this country?

* * *

The scenario is fiction, but only because Shays-Meehan has not become law. If it ever is enacted, its effect will be not to clean up campaigns, but to make them even less democratic and competitive than they already are.

Shays-Meehan (and its Senate counterpart, McCain-Feingold) is about far more than banning "soft money." It is about banning criticism. The bill would smother the political speech of grassroots advocacy groups in red tape. It would make it almost impossible for interest groups to issue voter guides to their members. It would sharply expand the instances in which a citizen's independent expenditure in support of a candidate -- say, printing and distributing bumper stickers at his own expense -- would be presumed to have been coordinated with the candidate, and thus count as a campaign "contribution." (Independent expenditures are unregulated; contributions are limited to $1,000.)

As much as campaign finance "reformers" may wish it were otherwise, the Constitution does not permit the government to control the quantity or tone of political debate. Shays, Meehan & Co. denounce "attack ads" and "negative campaigning," but the First Amendment knows no such sins. One voter's attack ad is another voter's simple truth.

In America, citizens and groups have the right to influence elections by communicating their views. Because communication costs money, to limit what Americans can spend on political speech is to limit what they can say.

Shays and Meehan may see nothing wrong with silencing their critics. Luckily for their critics, the Constitution does.


JWR contributor Jeff Jacoby may be reached by clicking here.

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