I updated this to include the media exemption, which I had forgotten.
Ok, so campaign finance regulations make my head hurt, so I'm going to try to explain the basic idea behind the differing bills instead of the legal ins-and-outs (which Adam Bonin and Kos cover extensively in this series of posts). Let's start at the beginning, with the rationale behind campaign finance limitations.
Campaign finance is regulated because money is very corrupting in a modern mass media system. In such a system, communicating is expensive, and since communicating is the lifeblood of politics, money can translate directly into a lot of power. Put even more starkly, in a politics dominated by mass media, having money means being able to participate in politics, and having little money means being unable to participate in politics. I will refer to this system as 'limited bandwidth politics', because a modern mass media system has limited ad space on TV, or radio, or on newspapers and wealthy interests compete over who can buy more of it. 'Limited bandwidth politics' describes modern American politics up until the advent of the internet.
Limited bandwidth politics tilts the system towards the interests of the corrupt and the wealthy, because they are the only ones who can really afford to participate in it. Reformers at one point looked at this problem, got upset, and said 'enough is enough'. They decided that the best way to fix the system was to place limits on the amount of money that people could give to candidates, and limits on how much people can coordinate with each other so they couldn't route money around these limits. The legislation to do this was called 'McCain-Feingold'. It did leave one exception in there, called the media exemption. Newspapers and TV shows aren't regulated by campaign finance because they are considered 'media' and not part of a political party.
Now, maybe campaign finance reform was a good idea and maybe it was a bad idea, but the reformers's premise was that the way to prevent systemic corruption was to restrict what people could do in political communication. Don't let people give above a certain amount. Don't let them coordinate. If they spend more than $1000 on politics, they have to register and be regulated. Restrict. Restrict. Make people file forms. This premise was perhaps necessary in a world of 30 second ads, because the only people running 30 second ads could afford to hire lawyers to file forms for them. And maybe restrictions were necessary in that world, because at least they level the playing field a little bit.
Which brings me to the internet. The internet kind of screws everything up, because it is an unlimited bandwidth medium. You don't buy more speech on the internet, since you can start a blog for free and anyone in the world can look at it. You earn more of an audience based on what you say and not how much you spend saying it. This has serious consequences for campaign finance limits, because it is in fact a direct challenge to the basic premise that ending corruption is simply a matter of restricting the right set of actors. The internet presents a different route to ending corruption in politics. Instead of resricting the ability of wealthy interests to participate in politics, the internet simply lowers the barrier to participation for everyone else. That is a big deal.
Rather than removing money from politics, the internet changes what money can buy in politics. It allows people to organize themselves, and makes it much easier to communicate compelling messages among large numbers of people without a lot of capital. Now you'd think that the people who wanted campaign finance limits (known as 'reformers') would look at the internet and say 'Awesome, this helps solve our problem!' But they didn't. Instead, they have held tight to their bias against participation. They think that restricting the ability of Americans to participate in the political system is the only way to check the power of wealthy interests. Actually, they have it backwards. Regulation not only won't help, it will once again raises the barrier to participation and thus recreates the worst aspects of a mass media 'limited bandwidth politics'. In reformer-land, in order to participate in internet politics you'd need to lawyer up and do things only rich people can afford. This is precisely what they should be fighting against, not promoting.
All of which brings me to the two bills before Congress. The first is called HR 1606, and it keeps the internet unregulated. This is what us bloggers want. We think the internet's pretty great, and we want to see proof that more participation in the political system is a bad thing before deciding to regulate speech online. The 'reformers' are fighting this bill tooth and nail.
The second bill is HR 4900. This is from the reform camp, and it could possibly put blogs like DailyKos and MyDD out of business. We simply can't afford to submit forms to the FEC on every candidate that we link to, for instance, and there's no guarantee that HR 4900 won't force us to do exactly that. It's also absurdly illogical. Newspapers and TV stations with clear partisan affiliations are considered media under the media exemption and can endorse candidates and talk politics without coming under campaign finance regulations, but not blogs.
Now, we're hearing a lot of rhetoric from the reformers. We're hearing that they want to protect bloggers from regulation while preventing soft money from flowing onto the internet. It's all basically untrue. Reformers want to regulate the internet and the activities of bloggers. Their strategy is to put light regulations on it at first, and then tighten them once they get a working system in place. They just can't seem to understand that restricting political speech on the internet is a seriously bad move. Regulating the internet will only cause corruption where there is none, because it will raise a barrier to entry to internet politics against all but those willing and capable of wading through the confusing thicket of regulations.
The irony here is that the good government groups have totally and utterly failed at systemic reform. Common Cause was founded in the 1970s, and since then the government has become massively more corrupt. The whole 'let's restrict' experiment just didn't work. And this failure might explain the intrangience of the reform groups, though I'm not really sure. Perhaps they have so divorced themselves from the ultimate objective (ending corruption) because it seemed unattainable that their only end at this point is regulation for regulation's sake. Maybe their desire for regulation is their raison d'etre, why they get quoted in the newspaper and how they fundraise. Regardless, on this issue at least, us bloggers stand squarely against them, and on the side of free speech. I should also point out that if progressives are going to win in the long-run, we are going to do it through the internet, and so it is massively stupid to cripple the ability of Americans to use the internet for political purposes at this medium's political infancy.
I hope you've enjoyed this description of the issue. If you have, there's one thing you can do for me. Bother Nancy Pelosi. You see, it's important to know that Nancy Pelosi is on the wrong side, as are many House Dems. She's fighting against our bill, HR 1606, and fighting for the reformer bill. Now, I'm no fan of Nancy Pelosi, as I've made clear here, here, here, here, here, and here. And never before has she actively gone out of her way to threaten free speech itself. Still, I'm willing to entertain the notion that her opposition is based on ignorance, and so she can be persuaded that her stance is seriously, seriously flawed. She needs to hear from us that she should get behind HR 1606.
Here's her number. Call her and ask her to get behind HR 1606.
(415) 556-4862 (SF)
(202) 225-4965 (DC)