Sunday, October 01, 2000

When money talks, speech isn't free

        The only thing wrong with politics is that it is full of politicians.

        As we count down the days to the presidential election and a battle for control of Congress, millions of Americans feel cut out of the political process because it has already been bought by cold, hard cash — from the special interests, the political parties, from everybody but them.

        They might be persuaded to participate if they had a reasonable hope that the money-driven system might be fixed. Then they realize that the only people in a position to fix it are politicians, and they quickly tune out again.

        Not much is likely to be done about the system of financing political campaigns anytime soon because the official line out of the U.S. Supreme Court for the past quarter century is that you can't really restrict money in political campaigns because money is speech. And speech, thanks to the First Amendment, can't be restricted.

        But anyone with a lick of sense knows that money is money. Money is property. Speech is speech. When you open your mouth and words come out — political or otherwise — that is speech. When you walk down the street carrying a
placard saying Our Senator's Mama Wears Army Boots, that is speech.

        But, if we were already conked on the head, rendered senseless and suddenly believed that money is speech, we'd have to deal with the logical extension of that — no money is no speech. The First Amendment, then, would be a pay-for-play document.

        If you have no money, you can speak, but barely in a whisper; if you have money, you have a stadium public address system to speak with.

        Probably not what the Founders had in mind.

        Every time politicians have done something to clean up the system, they have followed it up by inventing a way around it.

        The presidential campaign this year is a classic example.

        We have a public financing law for presidential campaigns. Presidential contenders can, if they choose to do so, take taxpayers' dollars to fund their campaigns. But, if they do, their campaign committees have to refrain from raising any more money. The theory behind such public financing is simple — we, the people, will buy the politicians before the special interests do.

        George W. Bush and Al Gore have both taken this deal.

        The taxpayers of the United States have handed each of them $68 million. By taking that money, the Gore and Bush campaigns were, in effect, pledging to the people that they wouldn't depend on special interest money to get to the White House.

        But in this glorious age of campaign advertising, $68 million won't buy you nearly enough ad vertising spots, so the campaigns have found a way around it.

        About two of every three dollars spent on presidential campaign advertising this year has been paid for not by the candidates' campaign committees, but by the political parties, who, need we say, get their money in huge, unregulated chunks from the same special interest groups whose influence the public financing laws were supposed to lessen.

        From June 1 to Sept. 20, about $10.6 million was spent in presidential campaign advertising in Ohio alone. Only one-third of that was paid for by the Gore and Bush campaigns.

        If the taxpayers got this kind of deal at the neighborhood hardware store, they'd be down there on Saturday morning asking for their money back.



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