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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Mann Confirms Treglia's Account of Pew Campaign Finance Reform Astroturfing

A July 2004 Pew Charitable Trust newsletter article by Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann confirms the account of former Pew program director Sean Treglia's March 2004 desciption of a multi-million dollar effort to create the appearance of widespread public support for campaign finance reform.

Democracy Project's Win Myers found the Mann article and has an incisive analysis of its contents and implications. Not only does Mann confirm the Treglia account, according to Myers, the well-known Brookings political authority also provides rich new details about a systematic and lavishly financed effort that began in the wake of the 1996 campaign scandals.

As important as those aspects of the Mann article are, I believe it will ultimately prove even more significant for what it says about the war against the First Amendment being waged for more than a decade by campaign finance reform advocates. In a fundamental sense, what these people represent is an attack on the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition every bit as serious as Lincoln's jailing of newspaper editors in the Civil War and Adams' jailing of political critics with the Alien & Sedition Acts.

Mann's article begins by noting the stunned amazement that greeted the U.S. Supreme Court's wholly unexpected affirmation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 - aka as McCain-Feingold - in its 2003 decision of McConnell v FEC. The Court's decision:

"... affirmed critical decisions made years earlier: to refocus the reform agenda on a limited set of pressing problems that emerged in the 1996 election, to frame legislative proposals that could attract bipartisan support in Congress and pass constitutional muster, to build a substantial empirical record documenting how contemporary campaign-finance practices departed from the intentions of existing law and to attract to the reform coalition a broader, more diverse set of groups and interests.
"These decisions transformed what had been a fractious reform community pursuing an ineffectual legislative strategy since the mid-1980s into a more pragmatic, formidable, and ultimately successful force.

"Looking back on this history, I am struck by the pivotal role played by The Pew Charitable Trusts and allied foundations in nurturing the efforts that made possible the new campaign finance law."

But there is another paragraph in Mann's article that includes a particularly troubling but revealing statement about what the campaign finance reform effort really seeks:

"Defenders of the new law, myself included, could not have been more pleased by the substance of the decision or by the rationale used by the majority to uphold Congress’s handiwork. The Court explicitly recognized the care the bill’s authors took to craft constitutional means to achieve a limited set of policy ends.
"While many BCRA critics see an ambitious and threatening departure in campaign finance regulation and jurisprudence, supporters are comforted that the Court recognized that Congress took measured and considered steps to restore a regime that was undermined in recent years by the rise of party soft money and the explosion of electioneering disguised as issue advocacy[emphasis added]."

Did you catch that last phrase? "Electioneering disguised as issue advocacy." It's not clear from Mann's formulation here which is the greater crime, electioneering or advocacy, but it seems a good bet that electioneering is the truly bad thing, so let's look at that word closely.

Here's another phrase that means exactly the same thing: "political speech." It comes from our English word "politics," which itself is derived from the Greek "Polis." The polis is literally we the city. Thus, politics is at the heart of the city's deliberation about itself and political speech is the language of that deliberation.

Now consider the meaning of "issue advocacy." The city's conversation is full of issues and those who express views on those issues are engaging in "issue advocacy." But that issue advocacy is simply another way of describing the politics of the city, its conversation about itself. Thus "electioneering" and "issue advocacy" are two different ways of describing the same thing. To limit electioneering is necessarily to limit issue advocacy, which is to limit political speech.

That is why protecting political speech - and its correlates of religion, press, assembly and petition - is the sine qua non of constitutional liberty. There is no alternative to a Bill of Rights that makes it absolutely clear - Congress shall make no law abridging those freedoms.

Campaign finance advocates protest and wail that they are being misrepresented by such a view, but the words come from their own mouths that freedom of political speech is something to be feared and that they mean to limit it by force of law. And once one such limit is accepted, there is no end to the limits that will follow.

Mann’s distinction between electioneering and issue advocacy is a false one. But campaign finance reform advocacy is full of such false distinctions because otherwise the clarity of the First Amendment would expose the whole enterprise for what it is, a threat to constitutional liberty.

This is why I believe the First Amendment has never been so threatened as it is now by campaign finance reform. Lincoln could at least point to a civil war in progress to justify jailing Copperhead newspaper editors in Ohio. And Adams could at least point to credible evidence of a war with France being near. But people like Mann want to regulate political speech simply because they must in order to control how candidates seek office and how voters debate the candidates' qualifications and promises. And the Supreme Court said go ahead.

Put another way, these people seek power to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot say about our city.

Another word for that is tyranny.