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Careful what you say

National | The Senate votes to crack down on campaign financing, but opponents ask: What happened to free speech?

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

Bradley Smith says he's 42, but nobody wants to believe it without looking at a driver's license. Despite his boyish appearance, this soft-spoken Midwestern law professor scared the Washington establishment so much that they held up his appointment to the Federal Election Commission for 14 months.

That's because Mr. Smith promised to be a Washington oddity-a regulator who cherishes freedom. After sitting down last week for a Capitol Hill interview on conservative activist Paul Weyrich's TV show, Mr. Smith stood and paced as he explained to WORLD, "It's easy to lapse into the general attitude that more regulation is the norm, the proper thing to do. But I want to suggest, how about freedom being the norm?"

This Mr. Smith is as much at odds with Washington as the Jimmy Stewart movie character. As he works to bring restraint to the FEC, the U.S. Senate cleared the way to pass (after years of defeats) the McCain-Feingold bill, which would crack down on so-called "soft money" contributions and repeal the right of citizens to run ads mentioning politicians in the last 60 days of an election cycle. ("Soft money" is money raised and spent outside the regulatory structure for federal election campaigns.)

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In this climate, Mr. Smith stands out like a sore thumb, making his case in a timely new book titled Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform. Against all the conventional media wisdom generated by Sen. McCain's losing presidential campaign, he argues that campaign finance regulations don't prevent corruption. They make political competitions less equal rather than more equal between incumbents and challengers, and unconstitutionally restrict the free-speech rights of American citizens.

But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Smith sees up close the way tough campaign regulations can discourage grass-roots involvement in politics. "I can't tell you the number of letters we get [at the FEC] where people write, 'I've learned my lesson. I'm never going to volunteer again.'" Mr. Smith recalled how a law school colleague told him he signed up to be a faculty adviser for a group of law students for Bush-Cheney. "'Don't spend more than $250, or you'll be required to file extensive reports to Washington,' I told him. That slowed down their activity a lot."

But the Senate last week moved full speed ahead to add yet another layer of campaign regulations, and despite proclamations of reformist idealism, the amendments look self-serving. Senators, for instance, voted to raise donation limits if they were forced to run against self-financing millionaire opponents. They voted to require that media outlets provide discounted TV time for campaign commercials. Some Republican leaders even voted for an amendment by liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone to include everyone, not just corporations and unions, in the 60-day ban on ads that mention politicians.

Moderate approaches, such as the alternative sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, normally a staunch McCain ally, did not pass. Mr. Hagel's bill would have capped soft money contributions to political parties at $60,000 per election. It would have raised the limit on "hard money" contributions-which go directly to candidates-from $1,000 per election to $3,000. McCain foes (and quietly, the Bush White House) preferred the Hagel version, but the increased number of Democrats in the Senate is smoothing Mr. McCain's way.

Momentum now appears to be on Sen. John McCain's side, and that is a bit odd. In 1993 and 1994, with President Clinton in the White House and Democratic House and Senate majorities, campaign-finance proposals went nowhere. Now, with a Republican president and Republican control of the House and Senate, the first major revision of the campaign laws since 1974 is gaining steam.

The new momentum is also loaded with irony, since large soft money donations didn't become a major-league item until the Democrats started collecting them in 1986. (Democratic fundraisers serving Bill Clinton aggressively encouraged the doubling and tripling and quadrupling of soft money contributions.) Add to that the media mystique surrounding Mr. McCain's presidential run: If campaign reform was wildly popular, why didn't he win? But many in the news media continue to promote the clout of Mr. McCain and trade gossip of Bush-McCain feuding and a possible McCain rerun for president in 2004.

Mr. McCain didn't even stutter over the minor controversy that erupted over a supportive new television ad from a front group called "Americans for Reform." When House Minority Whip Tom DeLay attacked Mr. McCain for lending his Senate committee room to a soft money ad campaign to ban soft money, Mr. McCain released a statement: "Tom, take a deep breath and read the bill." The ad was supposedly OK because it came from a nonprofit group, not a corporation or union, but the passage of the Wellstone amendment the next day removed that defense. Spokesmen for Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold, as well as Americans for Reform spokesman Howard Opinsky (a former McCain spokesman), refused to return WORLD's calls about the ad campaign.

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