Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Event preview: Experts debate campaign finance and the First Amendment

June 25, 2014 by Nicandro Iannacci


Intelligence Squared U.S. at the National Constitution Center
Intelligence Squared U.S. at the National Constitution Center

The award-winning NPR show Intelligence Squared U.S. returns to the National Constitution Center for a no-holds-barred debate, this time focusing on campaign finance, Super PACs and the First Amendment.

Following the traditional Oxford-style debate format, Floyd Abrams and Nadine Strossen will propose and defend a motion that Burt Neuborne and Zephyr Teachout will oppose. John Donvan of ABC News will moderate.

The motion to be considered: “Individuals and organizations have a constitutional right to unlimited spending on their own political speech.”

Audience members will be asked to vote for or against the motion both before and after the debate. The team that succeeds in shifting opinion by the greatest margin will be declared the winner.

The debate over campaign finance regulation is an old and well-established one. But for nearly 100 years after the founding of our republic, the federal government was silent on the matter.

It was not until 1867 that Congress finally weighed in, passing a naval appropriations bill that made it illegal for government officials to solicit naval yard workers for money.

Other highlights in American history include the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883; the 17th Amendment in 1913; the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1971; and the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.

From time to time, the Supreme Court has been asked to rule on campaign finance reform. In 1934, the Court upheld financial disclosure requirements for House candidates. In 1976, the Court struck down parts of FECA. And in 2010, the Court struck down parts of BCRA.

Just two months ago, the Court made its most recent foray into the issue, striking down aggregate contribution limits on the money an individual donor can give to parties and candidates.

“This means we now have the worst of both worlds,” wrote debater and Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout in an op-ed for the Washington Post in the days after the decision. “This is what has produced today’s reality, in which candidates and members of Congress have to spend more than half of each workday raising money from the wealthy rather than, say, listening to constituent concerns and governing.”

In contrast, debater and former ACLU president Nadine Strossen railed against such limits in her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2001, shortly after the Senate first passed the BCRA.

“[W]e have insisted that campaign finance laws must serve two vital goals: protecting freedom of political speech and association and expanding political opportunity and participation,” Strossen said of the ACLU. “Unfortunately, [the BCRA and its House counterpart] are fundamentally inconsistent with these goals. Rather, they are destructive distractions from the serious business of meaningful campaign finance reform which entails easing, not tightening, the legislative controls on the financing of our political campaigns.”

Teachout will be joined by NYU professor Burt Neuborne. Strossen will be joined by attorney Floyd Abrams.

Tickets are still available! Advanced reservations required. Please call 215-409-6700 or order online. You can also watch a live stream of the event beginning at 6:30 p.m. EDT.

This program is supported by the Daniel Berger, Esq. Programming Fund and The Snider Foundation, and is presented in partnership with Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates (IQ2US).

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