Rep. John Conyers and other top Judiciary Committee Democrats were taken aback by free speech advocates' strident attacks on campaign finance reform legislation Tuesday.
"I want to thank you for forcing me to undergo many more hours of study," the Michigan lawmaker said in an exasperated tone after ACLU President Nadine Strossen launched a broadside against reform proposals in a hearing by House Judiciary's subcommittee on the constitution.
"What this legislation does is make it a crime for citizens and citizens groups to criticize our government," Strossen said. "How can this be seriously considered in a free and open society, much less characterized as a progressive reform?"
The House is considering legislation introduced by Rep Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) that would ban so-called "soft money" contributions to political parties, which are not earmarked for any specific candidates but often funneled to their campaigns. The House also is expected to vote on the Senate-passed McCain-Feingold legislation that would ban ads attacking any candidates within 60 days before an election unless paid for by "hard money" contributions provided specifically for another candidate or to a political action committee.
James Bopp, general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free speech said neither piece of legislation would pass court review if enacted. "I believe the provisions of McCain-Feingold are not only unconstitutional but bad public policy."
Glenn Moramarco, senior attorney for New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, was the only of the four witnesses to support the reform proposals. Only a handful of the ads from the 2001 campaign would be restricted if the bills were enacted, Moramarco said.
"I must confess to being conflicted by this whole area," conceded Rep. Mel Watt, (D-N.C.) after hearing the contradicting views. Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio, who picked most of the witnesses, said their testimony reinforced his position. "The tension between some campaign finance proposals and the First Amendment is clear," he said.
- Bill McConnell