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Lott uses free speech as a cheap political ploy

How can it happen that, as the sleaze of the Clinton White House campaign funding scandal continues to ooze out, staining an ever-widening circle of political activity, the effort to close the floodgates on political donations died a quiet death?

Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican and majority leader, said his manipulations that killed the McCain-Feingold bill were done in the interests of the First Amendment, to preserve free speech. McCain-Feingold would have ended “soft money” donations to political campaigns and dealt with other campaign fund-raising abuses.

We saw Lott defend his free speech rationale several times on television and heard him on radio, and not once did he seem to crack a smile or lose composure, the way actors sometimes crack up when they’re trying to deliver serious lines. So maybe Lott, somewhere deep inside, actually believes something of what he is saying.

What a stretch.

The simple truth is that the Republicans benefit enormously -- far more than the Democrats, even in their most shameless White House coffee-and-sleepover fundraising capers -- by the relentless flow of donations from corporations and rich individuals. The only corner of campaign corruption to benefit the Democrats is the money that pours in from labor unions, but that doesn’t begin to make up the difference.

During the last election fundraising cycle, according to figures published in The New York Times, even with the White House fundraising mill running full tilt, the Republican Party won the fundraising battle $138.2 million to $123.9 million. During the first six months of this year, the Republicans have raised $21.7 million to the Democrats’ $13.7.

So it isn’t too difficult to work up a bit of healthy skepticism when Lott decides to wrap himself in the First Amendment.

The speech he talks about, of course, is hardly free. People are paying huge sums to corner a segment of some legislator’s brain and indelibly mark it with a special interest’s point of view. Simply put, our politics is being purchased shamelessly.

At the same time, the big money, of course, pushes out the small money. The average voter’s franchise -- and freedom of speech -- is diminished with each new bundle of cash. If the interests with the most money are not your interests, your views are likely to be left unrepresented.

Taking Lott seriously is equivalent to saying if someone has enough money to buy all the newspapers and radio and TV stations in town, fine. Don’t worry about silencing other voices, as long as we preserve the right to free speech of the guy with the most money. But then, we know there are laws preventing one person from buying up all the voices.

Lott’s spin about free speech might make for a good chuckle if it weren’t also dangerous.

Free speech is one of our most precious rights and Lott’s ludicrous use of it dilutes its significance and threatens to make it one more cheap political lever in a tawdry melodrama thick with cheap tricks.

Campaign finance reform supposedly will reappear as a topic for Congress when the Senate reconvenes in late October. We hope that Republicans listen more carefully to their leadership on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that is conducting hearings into campaign finance practices and less to Lott’s silliness.

Reform is essential if the whole enterprise of American politics is to avoid being washed away in a tidal wave of cash and voter cynicism.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997