Fight Moves to House of Representatives
U.S. Senate Passes McCain-Feingold Bill to Restrict Free Speech, 59-41
WASHINGTON (April 4) -- A bill to place unprecedented restrictions on free speech has been approved by the U.S. Senate and will be debated this summer in the House of Representatives.
The McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" bill (S. 27) passed the Senate on April 2 by a vote of 59 to 41.
The bill is sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-Az.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wi.). It passed over objections from the NRLC, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and numerous other organizations that work to keep citizens informed about what members of Congress are doing in Washington.
Immediately prior to the vote, pro-life Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led the battle against the legislation, held up the fat bill and commented, "This is a massive transfer of speech away from the two great political parties to the press, to academia, to Hollywood, to billionaires . . . .This is a stunningly stupid thing to do."
Following the vote, NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson commended the 41 senators who voted against the bill.
"The senators who opposed the bill took a courageous stand to defend citizen groups' First Amendment right to free speech about politicians," Johnson said. "They defended the First Amendment in the face of strong pressure from the institutional news media, Hollywood, and elitist special-interest groups like Common Cause."
The bill was supported by 47 Democratic senators and 12 Republican senators. It was opposed by three Democratic senators and 38 Republican senators. (The roll call appears on page **.)
The Senate spent two weeks debating the bill, and adopted several amendments that actually expanded the bill's restrictions on communications to the public about members of Congress.
Focus Shifts to House
House Republican leaders have suggested they expect the House to consider "campaign finance reform" legislation in July. Pro-life House Republican Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tx.) has vowed to do whatever he can to block or substantially modify the Senate-passed bill. But opponents of the McCain-Feingold legislation face uphill odds in the House, which approved a similar bill in the last Congress (September 14, 1999) by a vote of 252-177.
The lead sponsor of a similar House bill (HR 380), Rep. Chris Shays (R-Ct.), said he wants to force the House to vote directly on the Senate-passed bill, because if the House makes changes in the measure, it might lead to a House-Senate conference committee, with unpredictable results. However, many other lawmakers from both parties, including some supporters of a ban on party "soft money," believe that changes are necessary.
President Bush has said that will sign a campaign finance reform bill "if it improves the current system," but that he will reserve judgment on any particular bill until it reaches his desk.
In a statement of "reform principles" released on March 15, the President said he supports "protecting the rights of citizen groups to engage in issue advocacy."
Senator McConnell has said that if the bill is enacted, he will lead a legal challenge to its key provisions. McConnell is the honorary chairman of the James Madison Center for Free Speech. It is expected that the Center and its general counsel, James Bopp, Jr., would be instrumental in any such legal challenge. (See www.jamesmadisoncenter.org)
As approved by the Senate, the McCain-Feingold bill would prohibit organizations (other than heavily regulated federal political action committees) from funding TV or radio ads that even mention the name of a local member of Congress for 30 days before a state's congressional primary, and for another 60 days before the general election (or a runoff election).
The bill defines such lawmaker-naming ads as "electioneering communications."
NRLC's Johnson explained, "For example, if the House of Representatives takes up a pro-life bill on March 4, 2002, NRLC and NRLC affiliates would be prohibited from running ads the week before the vote on Christian radio stations in California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, asking listeners to call congressman so-and-so to urge him to vote for the bill."
The bill originally contained the "Snowe-Jeffords provision," which banned such so-called "electioneering communications" by most groups, but which also contained a partial exception to allow groups that are incorporated under 501(c)(4) of the IRS code to sponsor such ads under certain burdensome restrictions. However, the Senate adopted an amendment offered by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Mn.) that extended the ban to the category of 501(c)(4) groups as well, which includes NRLC and most NRLC state affiliates.
The Senate also adopted an amendment, sponsored by pro-abortion Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), to provide that if federal courts strike down the 30/60-day pre-election bans, a different restriction would spring into effect that would restrict at any time of the year any broadcast ad that "promotes" or "attacks" a member of Congress or other "candidate," if the ad is deemed "suggestive" of a vote for or against a candidate.
In addition, a last-minute amendment added by Senator McCain would place year-round restrictions on lobbying groups communicating with the public about members of Congress if those communications are are deemed to be "in connection with" an election, even when the sponsoring groups are acting without any "collaboration or agreement" with a candidate. This restriction would apply to print communications and telephone calls, as well as broadcast ads.
(For further information on how the McCain-Feingold bill would interfere with the right of citizen groups to communicate with the public about what members of Congress are doing, see www.nrlc.org/Federal/Free_Speech/index.html.)
The bill also would prohibit political parties from accepting so-called "soft money" contributions B that contributions of unlimited size from individuals, corporations, or labor unions. Currently, these contributions cannot be used to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate, but they can be used to promote issues and for party-building activities. Under the bill, parties would be able to accept contributions only from individuals, and these would be limited.
The Senate rejected a fundamentally different approach to "campaign finance reform," offered by pro-life Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Ne.). Hagel's amendment did not restrict speech by citizen groups, and it capped but did not ban "soft money" contributions to political parties. NRLC did not object to the Hagel amendment. A similar bill (HR 1039) has been introduced in the House by Congressman Lee Terry (R-Ne.).
Media Promote Bill
As in past years, the McCain-Feingold bill has been heavily promoted by the institutional news media, which portray it as a blow against "the influence of money in politics" or even "corruption."
NRLC's Johnson commented, "The McCain-Feingold bill would further enhance the power of the news and entertainment media, since they would continue to enjoy unrestricted power to promote favored politicians -- such as John McCain -- while tearing down others."
(As the bill was being debated in the Senate, CBS News anchor Dan Rather "served as the star attraction at a Democratic Party fundraiser" in Texas on March 21, according to a report in the April 4 Washington Post.)
In concert with the "free media" campaign in support of the bill, a well-funded campaign of paid advertising and sophisticated lobbying is being waged by a coalition of special-interest groups, coordinated by Common Cause. The campaign is operating under the name "Americans For Reform," which is not a separate organization, but a project of Common Cause.
Organizations participating in "Americans for Reform" include: the American Association of Retired Persons, the League of Women Voters, the American Heart Association, the National Council of Churches, Church Women United, and the United Church of Christ.
On March 22, Americans for Reform held a press conference on Capitol Hill to unveil a new TV ad promoting the bill. Ironically, the ad itself would be legally risky if the bill were law, since it favorably depicts Senators McCain and Feingold, and both senators are clearly acting in "coordination" with the organization sponsoring the ad.
The ad concludes, "Let's take the $100,000 check out of politics." But Common Cause admitted that nearly 95% of the funding of "Americans for Reform" came from two "soft money" contributions totaling $227,347, according to a report in Newsday (March 23).
One contribution of $100,000 came from "Campaign for America," formed by retired businessman Jerome Kohlberg. In 1998, Kohlberg spent over $400,000 on TV ads attacking pro-life Senate candidate Jim Bunning, who nevertheless was elected a senator from Kentucky.
Americans for Reform also accepted a contribution of $114,872 from internet billionaire Andrew McKelvery, who has paid for TV ads featuring McCain promoting gun control measures.
Senator McConnell commented, "These so-called reformers shamelessly solicit $100,000 contributions from fat-cat special interests to fund an effort to deprive average Americans, groups and parties their First Amendment freedom to participate in the political process."
In a related development, a group of Hollywood celebrities called Creative Coalition sent senators a letter threatening not to hold any more fundraising events for them unless they supported the McCain-Feingold bill.
"We're writing this letter to say we'll do everything in our power to hold these people accountable and punish them" if they don't back the bill, explained actor William Baldwin, a spokesman for the group, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times (March 12).
The article quoted Senator McCain as commenting, "I think they understand this is an issue of freedom and freedom from special interests."
"It is no surprise that Hollywood favors a bill that would gag grassroots organizations like NRLC and the Christian Coalition, while allowing wealthy entertainment figures to collectively give millions of dollars worth of contributions directly to pro-abortion candidates," commented NRLC's Johnson. "Hollywood recognizes that its 'special interests' will be advanced by this bill, even if Senator McCain does not."
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up the McCain-Feingold bill (S. 27) or other legislation to restrict free speech about politicians in July.
It is important that all House members -- both pro-life and pro-abortion -- hear from constituents who believe that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech about federal politicians.
All available means of activating grassroots networks should be utilized to galvanize citizen activity on this issue, including telephone trees, church bulletins, call-ins to appropriate radio shows, and letters for publication in local newspapers.
The information in the article that begins in page 1 provides basic information on the bill. While letters should be in your own words, the key point is that the McCain-Feingold bill severely restricts the right of citizen groups to collect and spend money to inform the public about what members of Congress are doing in Washington, including alerting citizens about upcoming votes on key issues in Congress.
Additional information on the ways in which the bill would harm NRLC and other pro-life groups is available at the NRLC website at www.nrlc.org/Federal/Free_Speech/index.html.
How to Contact U.S. House Members
You can write to any member of the U.S. House at:
The Honorable ____________
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
You can call any member of the U.S. House through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 225-3121. If you are not sure who represents you in the House, just give your postal zip code to the Capitol Switchboard operator.
In addition, calls to the in-district offices of House members are very helpful. You can get your congressman's local office number from local telephone information.
By e-mail: Members of Congress do not place much importance on e-mail, since they receive many thousands of mass-generated e-mails from outside their own districts. Therefore, regular mail is much more effective. However, if you use e-mail to your own congressman or senators, be sure to include your postal mailing address in your e-mail.
Another Way You Can Help
Please send a copy of any letter that you receive from a Member of Congress on this issue to:
National Right to Life
Federal Legislative Office
419-Seventh Street, Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20004
Fax: (202) 347-3668