Recognizing that McCain-Feingold is out of control, liberty-minded Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling introduced the Online Freedom of Speech Act (HR 1606) in the House last April. (Harry Reid has sponsored identical legislation in the Senate, showing that not all Democrats are lost on the issue.) The bill reinforces the Internet’s current regulation-free status by excluding blogs and various other Web communications from campaign-finance strictures. Brought to an expedited vote under special rules that required a two-thirds majority in early November, the bill—opposed strenuously by the campaign-finance reform “movement”—failed. “Today’s action marks a sad day for one of our nation’s most sacred rights: freedom of speech,” reflected House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “The last thing this Congress should be doing is trying to stifle public debate online.”
The House Democrats torpedoed HR 1606, but they had surprising help from about three dozen Republicans. Why did so many normally staunch opponents of campaign-finance speech restrictions shift camp? One possible explanation, perhaps cynical: it’s hard to unseat incumbents, given their advantages of name recognition, free media exposure, and an easier time raising donations. If they can make it harder for their rivals to speak, which campaign-finance rules help them to do, the challenger’s task gets harder still. (Notably, after Congress began campaign-finance restrictions in the seventies, incumbency rates began to rise.) Once in office, some Republicans may suddenly like McCain-Feingold’s power to shield them from criticism—including on the Web.
This is all a great argument for term limits, don't you think? I voted for Feingold primarily for his opposition to the Patriot Act. But it would do well to remember what he said right after McCain-Feingold was passed:
“It is only a beginning. It is a modest reform. . . . There will be other reforms.”