ACLU Statement on Campaign Finance Reform

March 1, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union has been studying, litigating and lobbying on the constitutional and practical implications of federal campaign finance laws for more than a quarter century. For all of those years, while we prevailed repeatedly in the courts, we fought an uphill battle in the court of public opinion and ours was a lonely voice in the progressive community.

I have been, therefore, delighted to see groups like the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Justice and the OMB Watch begin to express significant concerns about some elements of the newly introduced McCain-Feingold legislation. This is a welcome development and one that I hope will grow in intensity as the Senate floor debate approaches.

Do not get me wrong. The ACLU is among those who believe that the system of electing candidates to federal office badly needs repair. And we will continue to advocate reform of the current system – such as our longstanding support for full public financing – but in doing so we will stress fidelity to the principles protected by the First Amendment with the goal of expanding, not limiting, political speech.

The proposals currently being considered by Congress do not do that. They are instead based once again on the failed approach of limits, limits and more limits – limits on candidates, limits on political parties, limits on independent political groups and, of course, limits on issue advocacy.

This bill represents a double-barreled attack on political freedom in America.

First off, it contains an unprecedented attack on issue advocacy by nonpartisan groups and organizations. It would basically prohibit unions, corporations and issue organizations from effectively informing the public about the conduct of public officials who are candidates for election by imposing a total blackout on broadcasting any information about an incumbent candidate during the 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. Had this bill been the law during the 2000 elections, for example, it would have effectively silenced issue organizations across the entire political spectrum. The NAACP, for one, would have been effectively prohibited from running its powerful ads criticizing the hate-crimes record of then-Gov. George Bush. The NRA could not have run broadcast ads attacking the gun control positions of members of Congress.

Secondly, the McCain-Feingold legislation would also make it virtually impossible for political parties to engage in all forms of grassroots political activities, such as get-out-the-vote efforts, voter registration drives, voter education, candidate recruitment and development and issue development by totally depriving them of the funding which has sustained such activities.

Even individual citizens who want to join together to engage in such advocacy would be subjected to new and burdensome registration and reporting requirements under McCain-Feingold. And for citizen groups whose message is particularly controversial, such disclosure requirements are tantamount to placing a gag around their mouths and silencing them.

The nation has seen an explosion in recent election cycles of issue advocacy critical of the records of candidates and incumbents. In reaction, Congress now wants to limit the ability of independent issue-oriented organizations to describe positions using the name and/or likeness of a candidate during the crucial days leading up to an election, which is exactly the time when people are paying the most attention to the positions of their elected officials. We believe that if Congress continues to move in this dangerous — and ultimately unconstitutional — direction the only people who will be allowed to speak about the record of politicians will be politicians, PACs and the press.

That’s why I am delighted – once again – to be here today to join with Sen. Mitch McConnell and our “unusual allies” coalition to yet again renew our perennial battle to protect political speech from being decimated in the name of campaign finance reform. And soon I hope to join Senator McConnell in welcoming more progressive voices to our coalition of organizations opposed to McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan, its companion in the House.

This unprecedented government regulation of political speech flies in the face of 25 years of court decisions protecting such speech from government regulation. In our democracy, you shouldn’t have to register with the government in order to criticize it.

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