Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A Good Effort - Sort of

Defenders of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), aka the McCain-Feingold Act, are taking to the courts and airwaves to defend against a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (WRTL) testing the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Act. WRTL wants to use corporate money to run so-called issue ads in the weeks running up to the election . . . issue ads which just happen to mention candidates, of course.

McCain-Feingold disallows corporate money for ads that mention candidates in the period just prior to elections ("electioneering ads"), a prohibition upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in McConnell v. FEC. In essence then, WRTL's case is a sham, likely filed more for the free publicity (and it's getting tons) than as a sincere constitutional challenge. Whether you agree with the Supreme Court's decision, the point in contention has already been decided . . . only a year ago.

Before you go worryin' about WRTL's First Amendment rights being trampled on, the group can still run ads mentioning candidates in the weeks before an election - they just have to be paid for with donations from individuals, subject to the $5000 limit. Or WRTL can use its corporate money to run electioneering ads in newspapers or direct mailings or online. Anyone out there read a newspaper, live at an address, or have an e-mail address? Right. WRTL has plenty of opportunity to exercise its First Amendment rights. The fear-mongers' portrayal of WRTL as the helpless maiden bound and gagged on the railroad tracks before the evil train of McCain-Feingold just doesn't fly.

All that being said, BCRA still was a mistake in some ways. It raised the amount an individual can give a candidate from $1,000 to $2,000, when the great majority of Americans can't afford to give even a quarter of the old limit. And that's two grand for the primary and two grand for the general, meaning a wealthy couple can give eight grand to a candidate for a given election. When's the last time you had eight thousand bucks to give a politician? Individuals can also contribute $5,000 to a PAC, meaning WRTL can run $1,000,000 worth of ads explicitly saying VOTE AGAINST FEINGOLD with donations from a mere 200 people. As you can imagine, a million bucks can buy quite a bit of airtime.

All these limits are sky-high for average Americans. These limits still allow the few to dominate the selection and election of candidates - the core of any democracy - as well as the airwaves which nearly all of us use to stay informed about our world. When the WRTL case gets dismissed, there will still be a lot of work to be done before the American people reclaim our democracy from the hands of wealthy interests.

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