dismaying aspect of the whole scene on campaign-finance reform is
the running question of constitutionality. As we know, the Supreme
Court is not permitted to give "advisory judgments," which
means that critical legislators, and the president, have to be guided
by what they think the Constitution permits. That's what
they'd tell you in civics classes. Practically, politicians are
guided by what they think the Court can be counted on to do.
In 1972, a day or two after he was nominated for president by the
Democratic party, Sen. George McGovern appeared, late at night,
at what was an impromptu press conference. A burning issue of the
day (July 1972) was school busing for the purpose of effecting integration.
"What do you think of compulsory busing?" one reporter
asked. McGovern: "The Supreme Court hasn't ruled yet on the
question." He was saying that the Supreme Court's opinion on
the subject would govern his own.
It has reduced to this What would the Supreme Court rule?
on many subjects, most conspicuously, anything that touches
on church/state. As recently as Monday, the Court dodged the question
of the constitutionality of a display of the Ten Commandments on
state grounds in Indiana. If you will believe it, one of the arguments
made had to do with the secular content of the Ten Commandments.
Like, if all ten merely said don't, like, kill, or lie, or screw
around, then it would be okay to display them. But watch for those
provisions that say things like, Thou shalt keep holy the day of
the Sabbath. Some years ago Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed
his exasperation over successive court rulings that a) permitted
state funds for textbooks for parochial schools, but b) forbade
the use of funds for student picture books. What about student atlases?
Attention is being paid to a moral question: If the president believes
that a bill is unconstitutional, or even that parts of it are unconstitutional,
is he bound in conscience to veto it?
is being urged on President Bush, calling to his attention that
during the campaign he expressed doubt about campaign-finance reform.
But indications are that he just isn't going to do this. The legislators
who voted in favor of the bill (by a substantial majority) also
took a vow to abide by the Constitution. The White House hasn't
said it, but clearly Bush followers are being told: "Maybe
the bill is unconstitutional, maybe it isn't. There is no way to
establish which is correct until the Court acts on the question."
That, of course, is a replication of the McGovern way of looking
at thorny problems. Let the Court decide whether it's okay, and
I'll go along.
What tends to recede from view are the questions: Is it a desirable
law? Does President Bush think it is best for the country, or does
he think it is a bad idea? in which case, he should veto
The bill, as it is written, would leave in force those of its provisions
that aren't specifically ruled unlawful by the Court. Attention
focuses primarily on that part of the bill that denies to organizations
the right to publish advertisements within 60 days of a general
election, or 30 days of a primary, which argue, however indirectly,
in favor of a candidate running for office. James Bopp Jr., a lawyer
for the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition,
has announced, as have representatives of the American Civil Liberties
Union, that they can't wait to file suit on this provision of the
proposed law. Says Bopp, "If you can make it a crime to mention
the name of a politician 90 days of the year, you have made political
speech more regulated than pornography, burning the flag, obscenity
on T-shirts, and nude dancing."
But even if that provision is overturned, are we better off? The
bill, which failed last year, is a child of the Enron scandal; in
the views of many, a bastard child. It seeks to say that spending
for politics is out of hand. That position greatly appeals to those
who believe that government should play a lesser role in human affairs,
and like to think that there is a correlation implicit here: less
spending, less government.
But enthusiasts for this bill haven't pledged simultaneously to
lower government spending. What they want to do is to fine-tune
the way people spend money in politics, and make sure that, in doing
so, they better the prospects of incumbents.