Speaking Freely:

You've got to admit that Senator Mitch McConnell has found a clever way to dress up his support for the campaign finance status quo: He's been trying to wrap himself in the First Amendment.

On the last day of debate on the campaign finance bill that he fought for years, McConnell said that "the government is telling people how, when, and how much speech they are allowed," that the bill provided for "a wholesale regulation of every action of every American anytime there is a federal election," and that it "seeks nothing less than a fundamental reworking of the American political system." He further commented that the legislation "treads on the associational rights of groups … it hampers the ability of national and state parties to support state and local candidates and federalizes our every action and conversation."

Strong stuff, that. But whose free speech is McConnell really concerned about? Does he expect us to believe he is a First Amendment zealot? Or is this talk of defending free speech just a convenient smokescreen for defending a system of privately financed elections that favors special interests friendly to Republicans?

McConnell has not distinguished himself with his past votes on First Amendment matters. In fact, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said McConnell has rarely voted with the organization on any other issue. And in some cases where he has supported its position (for example, on a bill to reduce the tax deductibility on advertising for tobacco products from 100 percent to 80 percent), his motivations have not always been clear.

In this Congress, McConnell voted in favor of antiterrorism legislation that, according to the ACLU, will give enormous, unwarranted power to the executive branch and go unchecked by meaningful judicial review. In fact, of the four recorded votes taken in this Congress on issues of key importance to the ACLU, he voted only once -- on the campaign finance bill -- with the organization.

McConnell supported the Communications Decency Act of 1995 (the so-called Exon Amendment), which would have banned "obscenity" on the Internet but was overturned by the Supreme Court as an unacceptable assault on free speech. In the same year, he voted to impose new restrictions on the advocacy activities of federal grantees, including substantial restrictions on their use of private funds for lobbying activities. McConnell even strode out to the Senate floor to praise the restrictions as "outstanding" and "very useful." For-profit government contractors like weapons manufacturers and insurance companies were exempted from these restrictions. But groups like the Girl Scouts, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the American Lung Association would have found themselves facing meddlesome new regulations.

McConnell's past is even worse. In 1993, he voted with Jesse Helms to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts for having funded controversial artists. He voted to expand wiretapping, even though the interception of innocent conversations in federal wiretaps is already at record levels. And in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, he -- along with most Democrats and Republicans -- voted for the Clinton administration's counterterrorism bill, which, among other things, allows the prosecution of Americans who raise money for humanitarian organizations deemed to have links to groups designated "terrorist" by the government.

Only on the so-called flag desecration issue has McConnell shown that his support for free speech extends beyond the political speeches of wealthy campaign contributors. Over the last decade, he has consistently voted to protect the First Amendment and against legislation to ban flag desecration. The ACLU, however, noted that in 1989, he took the opposite position on two separate votes.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that McConnell mostly cares about free speech when it's the speech of wealthy special interests who finance campaigns (especially his). If he was really interested in campaign reform that promotes political speech, he would support steps to ensure that more people can speak and have their concerns heard. And because most lawmakers today are dependent on and responsive to the tiny number of Americans who can afford to give big political contributions, that means making it possible to run for office without being beholden to private campaign funders in the first place.