The “electioneering communications” provisions of the McCain-Feingold law kick into place today. This means that for the next 60 days, no union or corporate money may be used to finance any broadcast ad reaching 50,000 people that even mentions a candidate for federal office, nor may any incorporated entity – even non-profit citizens’ groups such as the National Rifle Association, Handgun Control, Inc., Planned Parenthood, Right to Life, or the NAACP – run any ads that mention a federal candidate.
Many critics of the provision call it a “blackout.” “Brownout” is a more appropriate term – you can still speak, you just can’t speak at full power. Of course, it is not necessary for the government to totally silence a speaker to deprive him of First Amendment rights, and as television and radio are the major methods by which most people now get political information, the restrictions have bite – as was intended.
Some people believe these type of restrictions are needed to “equalize voices.” We believe that that is not an issue for government, and that giving government that power is dangerous indeed. Indeed, one purpose of the First Amendment was to keep the government out of the business of deciding who has spoken “too much” or “too little,” or whose voice is “not heard” or “heard too much.”
Note that even though citizen groups – which is how most of us average folks have a voice in Washington – are now limited in their ability to rally public opinion and expose lawmakers votes or inaction, Congress is not in recess. Among the issues we should expect Congress to take up in coming 60 days are various anti-terrorism proposals, including one authorizing trials of terrorist suspects by military tribunals, a very controversial measure; proposals to make certain tax cut permanent and to expand others; and a possible vote on the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Earmarking reform remains a possibility. Congress still has waiting for conference committee a bill to further restrict the rights of citizens’ groups to contact the public to get the public, in turn, to contact Congress.
In exchange for surrendering our First Amendment rights, what have we gained? Do you feel Congress is more ethical than before? Less attuned to special interests? Do you feel more empowered, or less empowered, than you did four years ago, when the law passed? Can you name any tangible benefit from these prohibitions?