Statement by Douglas Johnson, Legislative Director, National Right to Life Committee
Coalition Press Conference for Free Speech About Politicians
March 1, 2001
The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is a federation of 50 state right-to-life organizations. We represent millions of Americans who believe that protection of innocent human life is a paramount public policy issue. Few of them have great financial resources, but they pool their efforts through our organizational structure, exercising their First Amendment right to associate.
I will briefly illustrate why we strongly oppose both the McCain-Feingold bill and the Shays-Meehan bill, and why we will again include roll calls on these measures in our congressional scorecards for this Congress. You can find far more extensive information on our objections to these bills on our website at www.nrlc.org, under "Federal Legislation: Free Speech."
These bills are loaded with "speech traps" -- that is, provisions that are carefully crafted to do two things: One, disrupt our ability to inform like-minded citizens regarding what their elected officials are doing, and two, greatly impede our ability to effectively communicate with elected representatives on our members' behalf.
Press stories on the McCain-Feingold bill often refer to the provision that restricts ads on radio or TV that even mention the name of a member of Congress or other "candidate" for at least four months during each even-numbered year. It is often stated, erroneously, that the bill merely requires "disclosure" of who is paying for such ads. In reality, this provision completely prohibits many organizations from sponsoring such politician-mentioning ads, and allows other groups to do so only under a host of restrictions that are intended to greatly reduce the amount of commentary regarding the activity of incumbent members of Congress.
But the bill contains other seldom-reported restrictions on free speech about politicians that are more far reaching. Consider, for example, the McCain-Feingold bill's restrictions (in Section 214) on communications that are deemed to be "of value" to a federal politician. This restriction applies all year-round, and it applies to all communication media, including mailings.
This sweeping restriction is directly linked to the provision of the bill that most egregiously attacks our right to represent our members to their elected officials, which is the extremely expansive re-definition of "coordinated activity." If would be virtually impossible for issue-oriented groups that communicate with elected officials regarding pending legislation to avoid the elaborate web of "coordination" traps crafted by this bill.
For example, under the bill, an irrevocable "coordination" relationship is established by the mere discussion of elements of a lawmaker's "message," with the lawmaker or his staff, any time during a two-year period. Once such so-called coordination is established, it triggers a total ban on issuing any communication to the public that is deemed to be "of value" politically to the lawmaker in question. The bill defines any "of value" communication as an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Moreover, even if an organization that falls into such a "coordination" trap happens to have a connected PAC, that PAC can no longer engage in any independent expenditure affecting that lawmaker, and thus even the PAC would be limited to $5,000 worth of speech -- a fraction of the cost of one full-page ad in one newspaper.
Let's say the bill were law. Today, a member of Congress introduces a pro-life bill we find worthy of support. Tomorrow I meet with that lawmaker to explore the best ways in which to explain to the public the desirability of enacting that bill. Should that lawmaker later publicly highlight his initiative to his constituents (as he most likely would), and should our organization also communicate to the public favorable information about that bill (as we most likely would), then both we and the lawmaker would be fat targets for complaints to the FEC that we had given and he had received illegal "contributions."
We believe that the collaboration between lawmakers and citizen groups is essential to the healthy functioning of our democracy. Consider that in the fall of 1999, groups such as Common Cause were working very closely with Senator John McCain regarding the promotion of the McCain-Feingold bill, and they were also spending a lot of money to communicate with the public to promote the McCain-Feingold bill. The McCain-Feingold bill was also the central "message" of Senator McCain's presidential campaign, which was then well underway. So, should all of Common Cause's expenditures of behalf of the McCain-Feingold bill have been regarded as illegal corporate campaign contributions to the McCain presidential campaign? We don't think so. But under the legal regime that these bills would create, most utterances by policy-oriented organizations about the activities of members of Congress and other federal politicians would become fodder for complaints by rival politicians and debilitating investigations by agents of the federal government.