Congress must end the assault on freedom of speech protections

Congress must end the assault on freedom of speech protections
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As House Republicans debate spending packages and tax cuts, they’re wisely making time to defend our freedoms of speech and association.

Nestled in the House’s latest spending proposal is a provision to allow churches and other religious organizations to participate in our political debate without fear of losing their tax-exempt status — a longstanding and noble goal of President Trump’s.

The Republican package would also allow businesses to participate in more than one trade association at a time when it comes to representing the policy interests of their employees and customers, while preventing the Internal Revenue Service and Securities and Exchange Commission from restricting the political activities of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups.

While the provisions will surely be criticized by the anti-speech left, they will bring more voices and more ideas into our political debate — a boon to our democracy.

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Pro-speech campaign finance reform is long overdue, and there is more needed. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold, dramatically hindered state parties’ ability to engage voters at the local level through contribution limits that have remained static and far too low for 15 years — even as the cost of campaigns has grown and other limits increased with inflation.

While one can bemoan the increased cost of political campaigns, they cost what they cost. Artificially keeping state parties and other political associations out of the political process by suppressing their ability to raise adequate public support to meaningfully participate is the wrong approach.

At a time of dwindling voter turnout, Congress can act to remove the barriers currently restricting state parties’ efforts to register, engage, and motivate more voters to participate in the political process. Congress should recognize the vital role state parties play in our political system and increase contribution limits to state parties to match national party limits.

And because state parties have many of the same federal election-related costs as national parties, Congress should enable state parties to raise funds into the same kind of segregated account national parties currently use to pay for their buildings, conventions, and legal proceedings (e.g. challenges and recounts).

In pursuing reforms to help state parties, lawmakers should make sure to index contribution limits to inflation — as they have for themselves and national committees — keeping the limits updated without requiring further legislation down the road.

There are other pro-speech reforms worth pursuing. For example, Congress should also increase annual contribution limits to PACs — perhaps to $10,000 — and index them to inflation. Today, just one married couple can contribute more to a candidate than an entire grassroots association of many thousands of citizens. Lawmakers should also lift the utterly pointless ban on political parties and their general election nominees “coordinating” — communicating about advertisements the former makes about the latter. Parties exist to elect their candidates. Making it more difficult for them to work together is nonsensical.

Unfortunately, removing the obstacles to political expression will not go unchallenged. End Citizens United (ECU), just one liberal “advocacy” political action committee, will spend up to $35 million fighting for campaign finance restrictions in 2018. Some establishment Republicans — fearful of outsider threats to their power — may appease them, sacrificing principle for the expedience of compromise.

But the anti-speech movement cannot be appeased. Its goal isn’t to get money out of politics; it’s to get the wrong money out of politics, and to silence any speech that isn’t their own. ECU inherently recognizes their ability to engage in any meaningful speech is an expensive proposition, with a $35 million budget to run TV ads, organize events, and pay the employees and vendors who make ECU’s political expression possible.

And there’s nothing wrong with them doing it. That’s the essence of freedom. Agree or disagree with their viewpoint, ECU retains the right to raise the money needed to voice it. But so does everyone else — a point badly missed by ECU’s stunning hypocrisy.

American democracy is stronger when our citizens can freely associate with more robust political organizations — liberal or conservative — be they campaigns, committees, or national, state, and local parties.

Without free speech and free association, our democracy is unrecognizable. Let’s hope Congress seizes the opportunity to unshackle these freedoms.

Dan Backer is founding attorney of political.law, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Va. Backer is general counsel for the Great America PAC and other political committees; he has served as counsel to more than 100 campaigns, candidates, PACs, and political organizations.