23 February 2008

Hoist with His Own Petard

The McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law is controversial because, although it has the good intention of reducing the power of special interest groups over political campaigns, it also has the unfortunate result of hindering free speech. How so? By restricting issue-based advertising a certain number of days before an election, as well as limiting the amount allowed in contributions. Monetary donations are one way of expressing one's viewpoint; by contributing to a particular political party, the donor makes a political statement of support for a certain body of ideas. In this sense, political contributions are a form of political speech. To restrict this is to take power away from groups less represented in the mainstream media (e.g., environmental groups or pro-life organizations) to get their message across about a candidate.

The law was controversial enough to land before the Supreme Court back in 2003, with appellents like Mitch McConnell, National Right to Life, and Ron Paul, among others contesting its constitutionality. As we know, a narrow majority upheld the law. Justice Scalia expressed his dismay in his dissenting opinion thus:
This is a sad day for the freedom of speech. Who could have imagined that the same Court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon such inconsequential forms of expression as virtual child pornography, tobacco advertising, dissemination of illegally intercepted communications, and sexually explicit cable programming, would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government. For that is what the most offensive provisions of this legislation are all about. We are governed by Congress, and this legislation prohibits the criticism of Members of Congress by those entities most capable of giving such criticism loud voice: national political parties and corporations, both of the commercial and the not-for-profit sort. It forbids pre-election criticism of incumbents by corporations, even not-for-profit corporations, by use of their general funds; and forbids national-party use of "soft" money to fund "issue ads" that incumbents find so offensive.
McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)(citations omitted).

It now seems the restrictions McCain has championed have come full circle and landed at his own feet:
Last year, when McCain's campaign was starved for cash, he applied to join the financing system to gain access to millions of dollars in federal matching money.... By signing up for matching money, McCain agreed to adhere to strict state-by-state spending limits and an overall limit on spending of $54 million for the primary season, which lasts until the party's nominating convention in September.... But after McCain won a series of early contests and the campaign found its financial footing, his lawyer wrote to the FEC requesting to back out of the program -- which is permitted for candidates who have not yet received any federal money and who have not used the promise of federal funding as collateral for borrowing money.
Although McCain has used no federal money, he promised federal funds as collateral on a $1 million loan taken from a Bethesda bank. The FEC's response to McCain's request to withdraw stated that, according to its rules, it would need a quorum to vote on his request, and also that it would need to review the loan provisions to decide whether or not McCain could be released from the federal matching funds program. If its ultimate decision is negative, this could have a drastic impact on McCain's campaign, as the $54 million spending limit has almost been reached (his campaign has spent $49 million thus far), with seven months still to go until the convention.

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On a tangent, have you ever wondered exactly what a petard is?

The famous phrase is found in Shakespeare's Hamlet, who discusses letters of his own death warrant, which he hopes to turn around in his favor in order to execute Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (his schoolfellows) instead:
There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
A petard was a small bomb hoisted up by some device and thrown over the enemy's wall. In some cases, the maneuver went awry, the soldier himself being caught in the ropes and blown up along with the petard. Thus, the phrase "hoist with his own petard" has come to mean "to fall into one's own trap" or "to be harmed by one's own plans."
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