WASHINGTON – Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said Wednesday that he will try again to repeal a prohibition on campaign advertising by certain groups, a provision that he said is unconstitutional.
The First Amendment Restoration Act would repeal a section of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that keeps groups such as labor unions and corporations from running broadcast ads that identify federal candidates, in the days before primary and general elections.
“The Founding Fathers were most concerned with protecting political speech — speech that we are grossly violating here if we can’t even mention a federal candidate’s name 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election,” Bartlett said.
The “30-60” prohibition “is totally removing any possibility for our people to criticize the government,” and violates First Amendment free-speech rights, said Bartlett, who tried unsuccessfully to reverse the advertising provision last year.
But leaders of government-reform organizations said the campaign law should be commended for undercutting the undue influence of special-interest groups by restricting their campaign contributions.
“It’s not about free speech,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “It’s about money, what kind of money can be spent on campaigns to prevent the government from corruption.”
Wertheimer, whose Washington-based nonprofit fights “big-money politics,” said the campaign finance law and its provisions are important to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.
Cecilia Martinez, executive director of the Reform Institute, credited the 2002 law with creating a more democratic political process in the last presidential election. The law “did a good job” of energizing small, individual donors and motivating political parties to reach out to new donors, said Martinez, whose organization advocates campaign finance and election reform.
The institute’s advisory board is headed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was lead sponsor of the campaign reform legislation in the Senate with Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. A House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
The Supreme Court upheld most of the McCain-Feingold legislation in 2003, prompting Bartlett’s first attempt to overturn the 30-60 ban. He announced his second try Wednesday, backed by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association.
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said the disputed provision is unfairly applied to organizations such as his, while large media organizations are exempted.
“It’s not an even playing field,” Pratt said. While his ultimate goal is to completely overturn the 2002 law, Pratt said he will work with Bartlett and others to repeal the specific provision as a first step.
Bartlett’s office said that 40 lawmakers had agreed to sign on to his bill as of Wednesday, more than had signed up in 2004 when his last bill was first introduced. He said it is vital that he try again to reverse the 30-60 ban.
“What bothers me about this, more than this totally unconstitutional infringement on freedom of political speech, is that we are willing to simply ignore the Constitution,” Bartlett said.
All constitutional rights are at risk, he said.
“Once you start down that road that you can rationalize ignoring the Constitution, where does it end?”
-30- CNS 02-09-05