Senator McConnell on the Perils of Campaign Finance 'Reform'

It was standing room only at the American Enterprise Institute last Friday.  The draw? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who gave a stirring defense of political free speech, as highlighted in this hour-long video of the speech at C-SPAN.  This cornerstone of American democracy has been under continuing attack by those who claim they are trying to “reform” our campaign finance system.

McConnell’s defense of the First Amendment was a remarkable contrast to President Obama, who has attempted to restrict political speech rights in one example after another during his administration.  As AEI’s Peter Wallison said in his introduction, McConnell is one of the “few good men” in Washington who has been relentless in defending the First Amendment.

Sen. McConnell began his speech by pointing out that what has always distinguished Americans “as a people is the eagerness with which they have organized around issues and causes they believe in.”  He expressed his concerns over an administration that “has shown an alarming willingness itself to use the powers of government to silence” groups that hold different views.  He stressed the importance of politicians resisting the temptation to muffle “one’s critics.”   The Framers intended and recognized that “the form of speech most needful of absolute protection is political speech.”

McConnell spoke of his own experiences over the last three decades, often taking an unpopular stance (“the media has been merciless”) in order to protect these First Amendment freedoms, such as his fight against the 2002 McCain-Feingold amendments to federal campaign finance controls.  All McConnell needed to win were “the 45 words of the First Amendment, and the determination to see their true meaning vindicated.”

McConnell went on to highlight instances of the federal government’s most recent attacks on political speech.  Most prominent is the proposed DISCLOSE Act, the legislative response to the Citizens United decision. “Those pushing the DISCLOSE Act have a simple view: if the Supreme Court is no longer willing to limit the speech of those who oppose their agenda, they’ll find other ways to do it.”  McConnell called the Act a “political weapon” intended to force disclosure on some viewed as enemies by the sponsors but not on those viewed as allies (unions).  It also calls for “government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grassroots groups, which is far more dangerous than its proponents are willing to admit.”  This is nothing less than an effort by the government to expose “its critics to harassment and intimidation.”

The senator then gave examples of such harassment, such as the “Idaho businessman who becomes a personal target of the president for speaking out on behalf of candidates and causes the president opposes.” The Koch brothers have become targets because of “their forceful and unapologetic promotion and defense of capitalism.” The president’s campaign even published an enemies list, “thuggish tactics” according to McConnell, and the president himself told Latino voters to “vote with the idea of punishing their enemies and rewarding their friends.”  McConnell said the president should be condemning such tactics, not joining in them.

As McConnell said, “No individual or group in this country should have to face harassment or intimidation, or incur crippling expenses, defending themselves against their own government, simply because that government doesn’t like the message they’re advocating.”