Thankfully, Dems' effort to stifle political speech falls short

Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images

Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images

While Democrats in Georgia scream "voter suppression" -- which I address in my column for this Sunday's AJC -- their brethren in Washington are focused on limiting a different type of democratic participation: political speech.

Yesterday, an attempt by Senate Democrats to give Congress broad powers to clamp down on political speech fell short of the required number of votes (it had cleared a GOP filibuster on Monday). Harry Reid may think the worst thing in the world is to allow the Koch brothers (and George Soros ... and Michael Bloomberg ... and Tom Steyer ... and ...) to spend part of their fortunes to influence elections and public policy. In reality, it would be far worse to allow politicians to decide for themselves how much scrutiny they're willing to receive.

Let's be honest here: Politicians of all stripes like campaign spending. What they don't like is not having control over campaign spending, either by themselves or through their parties. Nor do they particularly like the way money has helped level a playing field otherwise tilted heavily in favor of incumbents.

Now let's be honest again: For these reasons, politicians have proved unsuccessful at regulating campaign finance. For example, Democrats like to blame the "dark money" being spent by outside groups to influence voters on the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010. But such spending was already on the rise for nearly a decade before Citizens United, because the real impetus was the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law of 2002. That law restricted the ability of national parties to raise and spend large amounts of money from a small number of donors, on the premise that doing so would "get the money out of politics." Instead, it pushed the money away from the parties, which would have had to disclose it, and into groups organized, run and funded independently. And with fewer reporting requirements.

All Citizens United did was end some of the restrictions on how that money could be spent. The result is that wealthy conservatives have begun to engage in elections in a way that previously was dominated by labor unions. If Reid, et al. were being honest, they would acknowledge the thing that really chaps their hide is that outside spending has gone from being advantageous to them -- in 2000, 2004 and 2008, liberal outside spending surpassed conservative outside spending by two-thirds to three-quarters -- to a disadvantage.

Who knows if these donors would go back to the old way of doing things now that they've been liberated from the control of party bosses -- and particularly now that they've seen the way the IRS can be used to target and harass those who oppose the current regime. But rest assured that Reid's demagoguery of the issue can't be taken seriously.


NOTE: If you're wondering why your comment isn't being published immediately, please read this .

And after we all chuckle about the irony of my beginning stricter moderation of comments on a post about free speech, I hope it will become apparent my new policy is intended to increase civility here, not accomplish anything more sinister.