Soft-money ban not a free-speech issue, panel argues

Friday, March 26, 1999

NEW YORK — Banning unregulated election-campaign funds known as soft money would arrest a damaging problem in the world of campaign finance, but would not arrest free speech, panelists argued at a Columbia University First Amendment breakfast yesterday.

At the core of the campaign-finance reform debate, said First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, is the degree to which the First Amendment cuts into Congress’ ability to limit campaign spending and contributions, specifically soft money.

Soft money is “relatively new on the scene,” according to Abrams. Soft money was almost nonexistent when Congress instituted limits on contributions and expenditures. The Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, gutted most of that reform as an infringement on First Amendment-protected speech, upholding contribution limits but allowing expenditures to remain unregulated.

It’s projected that in 2000, $500 million of campaign funds will be soft money. “Corporations and unions are flatly barred from making campaign contributions, but are allowed to give soft money,” Abrams said. “They are able to do with soft money exactly what they’re not supposed to do with hard money.”

George Rupp, president of Columbia University and co-chair of the Committee for Economic Development, said the amount of unregulated money going into political campaigns was growing rapidly. He said the CED had designed a business proposal for campaign-finance reform.

Panelist Alec Baldwin, an actor and activist, blasted the American Civil Liberties Union over the group’s opposition to campaign-finance reform.

“The National Association of Broadcasters and the American Civil Liberties Union are the two biggest obstacles to [campaign-finance] reform,” Baldwin said, noting that broadcasters make huge amounts of money from campaign ads.

Mark Lopez, an attorney for the ACLU, countered: “Money is the essence of political speech and it can’t be regulated.” He added that soft money should not be banned because “soft money is money to be used for issue advocacy, and issue advocacy is speech at its very best.”

“The current system does limit speech,” Rupp said. “Reform allows other voices to be heard. Right now there is a paralysis of the system.”

“Is it any surprise that the ACLU would be opposed to any limits on speech or government regulation of any speech?” Lopez asked. “These reformers who are urging legislation, their efforts are misguided.” But Lopez did admit there was a 50-50 chance the Supreme Court would overturn the Buckley decision.

Brooks Jackson, senior correspondent for CNN, recalled the early 1970s in the nation’s capital when “money was passed around in suitcases.” Today, he said, “the laws are being ignored. Candidates don’t take the law’s limits seriously.” The Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign contributions, is a “rudderless committee with the capacity for deadlock, which it exercises regularly,” Jackson said. “The FEC was designed to fail.”

Jackson said more disclosure would only improve the situation, but would have very little impact. “Disclosure deters bad behavior,” he said, “but not enough.”

The CED’s central finding, according to Rupp, is that “too much time and energy are spent on the money chase.” The CED report recommends banning soft-money, increasing individual contribution limits, matching individual donations with public funds and setting spending limits for candidates who accept matching funds, among other things.

Baldwin agreed. “Soft money is an enormous issue that needs to be resolved. Campaign finance is like a drug and politicians are drug addicts,” he said.

“Soft money is perverting the system and change is essential for the health of the society,” Baldwin said. “People are claiming free speech rights, but those who are rich speak louder than other people.”