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Published on Tuesday, April 4, 2000 in the St Petersburg Times
They Guard Flag While Integrity Burns
by Martin Dyckman
Flag-burning as a political protest is so rare that to see it done you'd have to pay someone to do it. Almost any day, however, you can sit for free in the gallery of a state legislature or the Congress and watch votes being sold. Though you might not know it when you see it, and the lawmakers would not admit it even to themselves, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Both forms of conduct are protected, of course, by the U.S Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment.

When majorities of the Senate voted last week to reduce the Bill of Rights for the first time, which issue did they think worth such a drastic remedy?

Not the one that matters. They voted to punish the symbolic protest and tolerate the systemic prostitution.

Sixty-three, only four fewer than needed to amend the Constitution, voted to permit Congress to punish desecration of the flag. Only 33 supported Fritz Hollings' amendment to allow Congress and the states to set "reasonable limits" on campaign contributions and spending.

There had to be some inconsistency (to put it kindly) in that.

In fact, there were 48 senators, including Florida's retiring Connie Mack, who voted for the flag amendment and against Hollings. All were Republicans.

Nineteen, all Democrats, voted with Hollings and against the flag amendment. At least they had their priorities right.

Fourteen, including John McCain and Bob Graham, D-Fla., voted for both amendments.

Another nineteen voted against both. When again shall we see Mitch McConnell and Russell Feingold on the same side of a campaign reform issue? McConnell ordinarily befriends the First Amendment only when campaign money is at stake, but even he could see the hypocrisy of addressing only the flag.

Hollings' amendment, however, unquestionably went too far even for many critics of the Supreme Court's campaign spending rulings. In addition to allowing limits on what candidates could raise or spend, it also empowered limits on spending "in support of, or in opposition to" any candidate. Could this prohibit a union from lobbying its members or a corporation its stockholders? Probably. Could it be used to restrict endorsements by interest groups and the press? Conceivably. Hollings played into the hands of his foes. He should have drawn a bright line between contributions and independent expenditures. Unregulated, the former ill serve democracy because of the potential for corruption and the time devoted to fundraising instead of public service. But while independent expenditures are often unfair, the potential corruption is rather remote.

A former Florida legislator, who had held some considerable influence, told me not long ago of trying unsuccessfully to get a a pet bill brought to a vote. On asking why, the legislator was told the other side had contributed too much money. This anecdote comes with no names because the leaders would simply deny it and the source would have no future in Florida. But I believe it to be true.

In any case, most politicians are past denying that money buys influence if not votes. In a celebrated admission, Jim King, the House majority leader in 1998, publicly told fellow Republicans that they had to consider limiting lawsuits in "fulfillment of a promise to the business community for its campaign contributions and sweat equity."

Because access to the Legislature was for sale, access to the courts was curbed. What a sorry mess.

But of course the so-called "tort reform" may be held unconstitutional, too. It would be poetic justice.

Not all campaign news is depressing these days. In Maine, 115 legislative candidates -- almost a third -- are running "clean," which means they accepted just enough seed money ($500 for House races, $1,500 for the Senate) to establish their viability. Thereafter, they are limited to spending only what the taxpayers give them, which would be no more than $12,000 for a House race and no more than $40,000 for the Senate.

Reporting this, the New York Times called Maine a "perfect laboratory" for public campaign financing because candidates rarely spend as much. Voters approved the reform in a 1996 referendum. Massachusetts, Vermont and Arizona are following suit. This is what all states must do if the "For Sale" sign is to come off their Capitols.

The best thing about it is that Maine's "clean" candidates are spending their time with voters instead of potential contributors. Politics doesn't get much better than that.

St. Petersburg Times


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