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Campaign Finance Reform School
March 31, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Soft money. Most people haven't the slightest inkling of what the beltway jargon is referring to.

Soft money involves contributions made to political parties for use in advertising or for other campaign purposes. It is not supposed to directly benefit any individual candidate who is running for office. Included under the umbrella of soft money are donations made by individual Americans to grassroots organizations such as the Sierra Club, the NRA, the National Organization for Women and the Family Research Council. Many of these groups are involved in activities that assist in dispensing information to the public, voter registration and turnout.

Soft money is used by special interest groups to produce advertisements about their particular areas of concern. We recognize, of course, that in a free society this is a form of expression, of communication, and as such is protected in the Bill of Rights.

It is for this reason that what occurred recently on the Senate floor should alarm every American. A prominent senator, Ernest Hollings, wanted very much to see the McCain-Feingold bill pass. But there was a nagging little obstacle on the road to success. The stumbling block was none other than the U.S. Constitution.

Hollings decided that the best way to deal with the snag in his plan was to change the words of the document. That's right, he attempted to amend the Constitution and in the process, wittingly or not, he tried to hollow out the First Amendment.

In the end, 56 members of the Senate voted to overturn the proposed amendment. But an astonishing 40 members of this elite body voted to discard one of our most esteemed freedoms. Two Republicans, McCain and Specter, joined 38 Democrats in this perverse effort. These Senators are in dire need of, at a minimum, a basic civics lesson.

In another legislative move, the Senate's two-week lapse into constitutional unconsciousness was again evident. Senator Paul Wellstone proposed an amendment that basically codified everything that McCain and Feingold desired. Oddly enough, the two senators condemned the amendment, implying that Wellstone was trying to plant a poison pill. The amendment was not expected to garner a sufficient number of votes to pass.

But it did pass, thanks to support from members known more for their opposition to restrictions, senators like Mitch McConnell, Strom Thurmond and Don Nickles. The campaign finance reform pep squad was enraged. A saboteur was in its midst. However, Wellstone was merely trying to close up soft money loopholes by eliminating issue advertising for a period of time before an election.

Unfortunately, maneuverings such as the ones of these senators are consistent with the manner in which many of our present day politicians view their roles. They apparently fail to comprehend those simple words that open the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law." Perhaps they were never told of the founding fathers' reason for placing this prerequisite to liberty at the beginning of the Bill of Rights. In totalitarian regimes throughout history, the notion of free expression does not and cannot exist. Is there a better reason for concern than when as a people we witness our representatives trifling with one of our most profound liberties?

The truth of the matter is that if Congress closed up all loopholes for soft money contributions, it would violate the spirit and letter of the First Amendment's prohibition on legislation that abridges free speech. And any other legislative result that would leave an opening would then allow creative advertising consultants and their counterparts in the legal profession to create an ever-increasing set of cracks in the law. The soft money serpent would inevitably rise again.

The stock market is in a downward spiral. According to the Federal Reserve, the economy is at zero growth. We have an energy crisis that is slowly making its way across the country. Those of us who take our civic responsibilities seriously are keenly aware of the folly of the current discussion on campaign finance reform.

It is time for Congress to stop wasting our precious time. It must pass a sizeable tax cut as soon as possible because the resultant reduction in our oversized and intrusive government is the only antidote to effectively halt our growing economic and constitutional ills.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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