Conservatives attending their annual gathering in the Washington suburbs this week say they are willing to fight current campaign finance reforms all the way to the Supreme Court if they have to.
Arguing that campaign finance reform legislation about to come to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is the top of a slippery slope toward publicly funded political campaigning, conservative commentators, political operatives and activists attending the 28th annual Conservative Political Action Conference called it a big and constitutionally indefensible mistake.
The bill is the "most thoroughly subversive legislation of liberty in my lifetime," declared columnist George Will.
"They start by saying they are going to regulate hard dollars, then soft dollars, then issue advocacy," Will told several hundred assenting partisans gathered in the Crystal City Marriott ballroom in Arlington, Va. "They will not stop ... until the only political speech would be speech paid for by the government."
Supporters of campaign finance reform, however, say public financing of political campaigns is exactly the way to go to protect underrepresented individuals in America.
"The issue isn't simply free speech, there is the issue of political opportunity and equality in a democracy," said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, an organization that promotes education of the campaign finance system and its alternatives.
Campaign finance reform legislation, the brainchild of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Fiengold, D-Wisc., passed the Senate last summer. The legislation bans soft money – unregulated funding to parties for party building – and requires lobbyists to disclose funding for campaign advertising within 60 days of an election.
Last week, supporters in the House, pointing to energy giant Enron's political influence-peddling, gained enough signatures on a petition to force an identical version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., to a vote.
But while many Americans think the Enron collapse, which left thousands of stockholders and employees holding empty retirement accounts, was a financial and criminal scandal, few consider it a political scandal worthy of campaign finance reform. Only 35 percent think it is very or somewhat likely that campaign finance reform will pass Congress this year, according to a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll.
"I think its a sad day in America if this bill passes," said Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association, one of the most influential special interest groups in Washington.
In a show of strange political bedfellows, LaPierre, who warned that the NRA will put up its own radio towers to broadcast its views if the changes becomes law, said the gun rights organization will join the American Civil Liberties Union and other "freedom loving groups" to push an amendment taking the issue ad restrictions out of the House floor.
"King George threw colonists in jail for pamphleteering against the crown," he said, likening the issue ad provision to free speech limits imposed in the American colonies by the English throne. "You tell me, what's the difference?"
But Nyhart said allowing a corporate aristocracy to influence elections is no better than the colonial-era monarchy.
"What has happened (in the current campaign environment), is the rights of ordinary citizens who cannot play the political contribution game are being drowned out," Nyhart said.
Conservatives aware of the recent surge in support for reform legislation by politicians trying to distance themselves from Enron – which spent millions on both Democratic and Republican campaigns but had little to show for it when it declared bankruptcy in December – say they may have to settle for a tamped-down version of current legislation.
"I think that the best that can be done is to work towards a milder form of McCain-Feingold," said Victor Gold, a magazine correspondent and former press secretary for Sen. Barry Goldwater and Vice President Spiro Agnew. "There comes a tide in the affairs of men that taken on the crest leads to shipwreck."