02/25/04 — Good bill

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Good bill

Md. congressman seeks to repeal McCain-Feingold

Few laws if any have threatened the American people’s right to free speech as does the McCain-Feingold Act. Fortunately, a move is under way to cancel it.

What makes the McCain-Feingold Act so ominous is that it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision shocked those concerned about the rights guaranteed to us in the First Amendment.

The law is intended to reform — always duck when you hear that word — our election system by reducing the cost of campaigns. Among other things, it restricts electioneering over broadcast media as elections approach.

The First Amendment says that, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...” You’d think that would end the matter. After all, political speech is the very type that the amendment was written to protect.

Instead, a small majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court decided that free speech could be sacrificed.

It is not the first time, of course. The first attempt to muzzle Americans was the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798. It made a crime of criticizing government, partly in an effort to block the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800.

The effort backfired. Many Americans questioned the constitutionality of the Sedition Act and other laws that were passed in 1798 to strip people of rights. Partly in protest, the voters elected Jefferson. He pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act and returned their fines with interest. He also stopped enforcing the law, and it expired in 1801.

The McCain-Feingold Act, of course, has no expiration date. The court should have set one, but it didn’t. Now a congressman, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, is trying to do so. He has written a bill that would simply ban the McCain-Feingold Act.

The sooner the better.

Granted, it would be nice to go through a campaign season without being exposed to all those distasteful and deceiving television commercials that pollute the airways before elections. And it would be great if candidates wouldn’t take money from the so-called special interests in order to buy them.

But those seeking office have a right to shout loudly and often that their qualities are the best. And voters have a right to give money to the candidates of their choice as an expression of their own preferences.

It is true that the system has led to increased corruption as the technology for communicating has evolved. The proper solution, however, is not to be found in breaking down the Bill of Rights. It is to be found in electing people who are not so corruptible.

The McCain-Feingold Act, like much harmful legislation, is easy to demagogue. It sounds nice for a politician to say he voted against campaign corruption — without explaining the true perspective. Many probably felt that the Supreme Court would act as a backstop and undo the harm that they had done.

Since that didn’t happen, it is likely that some now would vote for Rep. Bartlett’s repeal act. Let us hope so. While the court declared the McCain-Feingold bill constitutional, eliminating it would be even more so.

Published in Editorials on February 25, 2004 9:37 PM