kf is Stupid: Campaign Finance Edition: America Coming Together was a political fizzle--the pro-Dem "527" group that raised $137 million to little apparent effect in the 2004 election. But I don't understand why what ACT did could be prohibited by the federal campaign laws--just as I don't understand why what MoveOn.com did or the SwiftBoat Vets did could be made illegal.
These were all independent expenditures--that is, speech and political activity undertaken outside the control and direction of the actual candidates. I thought the whole (persuasive) premise of the Supreme Court's big 1976 campaign finance ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo was that contributions to candidates could be regulated but that independent expenditures were presumptively protected speech. If I want to spend $5,001 telling voters to vote against Bush--as, in fact, I probably did, if you count in-kind contributions--isn't that what political speech is all about? The same goes for George Soros and Steve Bing (big funders of ACT or its affiliates). And for whoever funded the Swifties to defeat Kerry.
The principled argument here is that people should generally be free to say what they want and engage in whatever political activity they want. The practical hope is that big money that isn't given to a candidate but is spent by outsiders without consulting the candidate is apt to be spent counterproductively--emphasizing themes the candidate would rather not bring up. The Soros-backed Media Fund, for example, didn't run the ads defending Kerry that the Kerry campaign would have wanted it to run. That means that if we let rich meddlers like Soros spend millions they are almost as likely to buy the hostility of the pols they are trying to support as they are to buy those pols loyalty--as long as they don't "coordinate" that spending with the actual, official campaign.
The Federal Election Commission specifically says its investigation "uncovered no evidence of coordination" between ACT and the Kerry campaign." But the F.E.C .negotiated a $775,000 fine with ACT anyway, apparently on the grounds that it was illegal for the group to spend unregulated contributions (in excess of $5,000 per individual) on the "express advocacy" of Bush's defeat. Reaction--even from Instapundit--focused on the fine being "too late and too small" to have any effect at deterring future ACTs. I'd say the controversy is whether ACT should be fined at all.
Luckily the law isn't what the F.E.C. says just because the F.E.C. settles a case and crows about it. This appears to be an open question for the Supreme Court to decide.
P.S.: Would I favor regulating independent expenditures if principle and practice conflicted--i.e., if it could be shown these expenditures were almost always hugely effective at elected the candidates they were trying to elect? Good question. The only way to find out if the question needs to be answered is to let independent expenditures flourish and see what happens, no?So far, it looks as if they are an exceedingly unreliable way for the wealthy to buy political influence--and the Soros/Kerry/ACT/ Media Fund fizzle is Exhibit A for that argument. But if the F.E.C .is allowed to clamp down on independent expenditures** on a case-by-case basis--which is what a federal judge allowed yesterday--we may never find out the for sure.
**--Except by people like me, of course. I'm press! Nyah, nyah. ...
Update: Conservative Byron York of National Review celebrates the F.E.C. fine by republishing his 2005 account of ACT's various shenaningans. But does York believe in campaign finance regulation? If, like most conservative analysts,York thinks it should be OK for the rich to use their money to independently advocate specific candidates, shouldn't he be defending ACT instead of complaining that the fine is "[y]ears too late"? Most of the ACT shenanigans York identifies, after all--attributing lots of money to expenses for "nonfederal" races, for example--are tricks to get around restrictions on federal "express advocacy" that most National Review types don't think should exist in the first place. "[O]penly flouting the rules" isn't so bad when the rules are unconstitutional. ... 3:34 P.M. link