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April 4, 2006
I'd Call It A Stalemate

EJ Dionne poses an interesting take on the recent campaign-finance legislation that the FEC has finally produced. Dionne hails the blogger exemption that the FEC delivered while maintaining the regulations regarding Internet advertising as a win-win:

The new FEC rule is not that complicated, but it did involve some careful balancing. The commission, under pressure from a court decision, decided that paid advertising on the Internet should be subject to the same regulations as paid advertising on television, radio or in newspapers. The restrictions on the use of unregulated "soft money" that apply to the old media would apply to the new media, too.

At the same time, bloggers won what they had long sought: exemptions from regulations on what they can say that are akin to those that apply to what is now quaintly called the "old media." For bloggers, it was a Let Freedom Ring moment.

The decision could be looked at as a classic political compromise: Campaign reformers got something they wanted (the Web would not be allowed to become the loophole that ate all campaign finance regulations), while bloggers got something they wanted (freedom to inform, opine, fulminate and enrage, i.e., to speak their minds).

But the decision was better than your usual split-the-difference Washington sausage-making because it acknowledged that two serious principles are at stake and because it sought to make sure that regulations would be applied uniformly across media outlets.

The two principles are free speech and the ability of our democratic political system to protect itself from corruption.

Ah, if only this compromise succeeded in doing the latter, but unfortunately it fails in doing both. The BCRA and the lawsuit by Reps. Shays and Meehan that forced the FEC into addressing Internet regulation do not protect the principle of free speech. It controls, via government authority, the timing of political speech and the people and organizations that can participate in it. While I agree with EJ that the FEC should be commended for waiving regulation on bloggers and Internet journalists in the same exemption that EJ enjoys as a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, the fact that we had to get the government to grant us the right to write about politics without fear of legal harassment shows how dangerously adrift we have become in the zeal to purge money from politics.

EJ forgets this simple truth: what the government grants, it can also withdraw. And now that we have established the government as the arbiter of who can conduct political speech and when, what keeps the feds from telling the Washington Post when it can do the same?

When we put the government, in the form of the FEC, in the role of political moderator, we open a Pandora's Box of evils that this country has yet to know. Selective prosecution under these terms could result in the silencing of certain unpopular political factions, even if only through intimidation. That would perpetuate the status quo and result in skewed elections and the removal of choice from the electorate. Government would descend into self-renewing autocracy, a problem we already have with Congress and reapportionment even without the incumbency benefits of the BCRA.

All of this to protect us ... from what? Money. And the very regulations that supposedly protect us from its malign influence create the evils that the reformers want to purge. By putting money into a myriad of artifical classifications -- hard, soft, 527, 501(c), and so on -- it strips the responsibility for its use from the candidate to a series of players who never have to face voters or show any accountability. The regulations themselves create illegality for money; it takes a staff of lawyers for campaigns to navigate the labyrinth of legislation in order to keep candidates from becoming felons.

EJ is correct to hail the FEC decision, and he is among the few in the media who truly engage the blogosphere as peers and equals. My correspondence with him proves that. If the FEC could forever be in the hands of Brad Smiths and EJ Dionnes, we would not have so much concern over the the future of free speech. But our system of government is predicated on ensuring against abuses so that we don't have to live in fear of whomever comes to power in any agency, and the right to free speech is the bulwark of that defense. We need to repeal the BCRA and conduct real reform through complete and immediate disclosure rather than creating a system where everyone is a criminal -- because when speech becomes a crime, the government then becomes the only solution.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 4, 2006 7:52 AM

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