The effort by President Obama and congressional Democrats to sidestep the Supreme Court’s landmark free-speech ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case has sent these supposed advocates for clean elections down into the usual morass of special-interest legislation.
The Citizens United ruling overturned the McCain-Feingold federal restrictions, which prevented groups and corporations from exercising their right to comment on the behavior of our elected leaders. In this case, a so-called “reform” of campaign finance meant that incumbents had the right to silence their critics, such as in the instance that prompted the ruling, which concerned a film that was critical of Hillary Clinton and banned by the Federal Election Commission. The Court wisely saw this as a violation of the First Amendment.
Obama and the Democrats have engaged in nonstop demagoguery about this issue, which they pretend is about ensuring fairness but is actually about protecting politicians and the mainstream media from both scrutiny and competition. A measure proposed by Maryland’s Rep. Chris Van Hollen and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer attempts to skirt the Court’s decision by adding new disclosure rulings, which will burden those attempting to speak out and is almost certainly unconstitutional. As the New York Times reports, they’ve now made it worse by granting specific exemptions to some groups but not to others. And in order to gain the votes of moderate Democrats, they’ve added the National Rifle Association to the ranks of those who will be excluded from the new regulations. That has now been changed to include all groups with 500,000 or more members. That may lead some Democrats to think they’ll escape being tarred as anti-gun in a year in which anti-incumbent fever is running high. But all this does is narrow down the government’s discrimination between speech that it likes — such as campaign expenditures by labor unions — and speech it doesn’t like — such as any group targeted by the bill — while infuriating some liberals who are appalled at having to exempt the NRA.
This law isn’t just a mess. It also illustrates everything that is wrong about so-called reform of election spending, which amounts to nothing more than deciding who can speak and who can’t. The Times treats this as just the usual congressional log-rolling, in which deals are made to avoid antagonizing some while harming others. But free speech cannot be allocated like earmark pork legislation, which doles out funds to some districts while others get nothing. But to unprincipled politicians whose main goal is to silence their critics, there is no limit as to how low they will sink in order to pass a bill that will hamstring independently financed political speech.