March 26, 2001

           Working Its Will


WASHINGTON - The story is told of the corrupt Albany judge who
called opposing trial lawyers into his chambers.

"You offered me a $5,000 campaign contribution to throw this case
to the plaintiff," said the fair-minded judge, "and defendant's
lawyer here just offered me $10,000 to find for his client. Now how
about plaintiff giving me $5,000 more, evening things up - and we
try the case on the merits?"

Whether the bidding war that is now American politics will continue
in this fashion is to be decided in the Senate this week. Every
senator knows the subject cold and need not rely on staff expertise
or party discipline for guidance. Rarely do voters see such a
revealing free-for-all.

Money talks, but money is not speech. That, in essence, is the
offense and defense of campaign finance reformers.

That heavy political contributions influence officeholders is
beyond dispute. Money for "access" rarely qualifies as prosecutable
bribery, but the biggest givers are usually the biggest receivers.
The pros know that a quo has a way of following a quid and the
public is not stupid.

The purchase of a pardon by Marc Rich haunts the Senate this week.
The stain spreads; now we learn that the fugitive billionaire, with
$250,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, induced its national
director to lobby President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and
thereby bring glee to the hearts of anti-Semites. (Abe Foxman
should resign to demonstrate that ethical blindness has

But the hurdle that Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold must
jump is this: does the restriction of money in campaigns deny
anyone freedom of speech?

Of course it does. But we abridge free speech all the time, in
protecting copyright, in ensuring defendants' rights to fair
trials, in guarding privacy, in forbidding malicious defamation and
incitement to riot. Because no single one of our rights is
absolute, we restrain one when it treads too heavily on another.

That's why our courts have held repeatedly in the past century that
the Constitution permits restrictions on political contributions.
Just as antitrust laws encouraged competition in business,
anti-contribution laws have enhanced competition in politics.
Freedom of speech is diminished when one voice who can afford to
buy the time and space is allowed to drown out the other side.
Washington opponents of campaign finance reform offer less lofty
arguments, too.

1. "Holding down the number of paid political spots will increase
the power of the media at the expense of the political parties."
And what do my ideological soulmates find so terrible about that?
The wheezing liberal voices of the Bosnywash corridor are as often
as not clobbered by the intellectual firepower of conservative
columnists, Wall Street Journal editorialists and good-looking
talking heads. Wake up and smell the right-wing cappuccino, fellas.

2. "If we close the soft-money loophole, money will soon find
another way to reach politicians." Fine; that will provide a
campaign platform for the next generation's great white hat. The
tree of liberty must constantly be refreshed by the figurative
blood of tyrannous fund-raisers, as Jefferson almost said.

3. "If this goo-goo abomination passes with all its amendments, and
any one item is struck down by the courts, then the whole thing
must go up in smoke." Do Republicans really want to hold that
unseverability gun to the head of the Rehnquist court? Why, if
you're so hot for freedom of speech, tempt the high court to weaken
the First Amendment by letting a questionable part of an
all-or-nothing law through?

Tomorrow the senators seeking to keep in place the
Clinton-McAuliffe fund-raising abuses that so polluted the 90's
will offer the Hagel substitute for the McCain-Feingold bill. It's
sabotage, plain and simple, "limiting" soft-money gifts to a
half-million dollars per fat-cat family per election cycle.

Senators, fresh from offending billionaire candidates and from
thumbing the eye of the powerful broadcasters' lobby, should
cherry-pick a few items from the Hagel substitute, up the
hard-money limit to $2,500 and take their chances on a sore-loser
filibuster by voting down the all-or- nothing trick.

If that's the will the Senate works, I think President Bush would
tut-tut and sign McCain-Feingold. That's because I'm an optimist
and believe in the two-party system.

(c) 2001 New York Times