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MONEY TALKS, BUT IT'S NOT SPEECH

The Supreme Court this week upheld a Missouri law imposing limits on campaign donations and, in doing so, explicitly rejected the specious argument that, in politics, money is speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Justice John Paul Stevens said it as clearly as it can be put. "Money is property; it is not speech," he wrote in supporting the court's 6-3 decision. Justice David Souter went even further, observing that such property, employed in large amounts, is an agent of corruption.

The ruling was significant, though perhaps more for what it didn't do than for what it did. Had it gone the other way, the court would have killed campaign-finance reform for the foreseeable future.

But by affirming the Missouri statute, which bars individuals from giving more than $1,075 to any candidate in any election, the court not only kept reform efforts alive, but encouraged them.

Stevens, among others, signaled that he is willing to consider expanding the court's Buckley vs. Valeo ruling. The 1976 decision differentiated between campaign spending, which it protected as speech, and donations, on which it allowed limits. Although it didn't specifically deal with so-called "soft-money," the ruling also gave heart to those who seek to restrict this legalized bribery of unregulated financial gifts to political parties.

Most surprising of all, though, is who supported this decision. Although conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, the majority unexpectedly included Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor. The message is clear: Even those predisposed to limiting the power of government cannot be counted on to ignore the pernicious influence of money on American politics.

Two factors have stood in the way of meaningful campaign-finance reform: the argument that money is speech and the greed of incumbents. This week's ruling, including Stevens' unequivocal statement, may go a long way toward disposing of that first preposterous argument.

If money is speech, in that it allows a candidate's (or voter's) message to be heard, then so is a bullhorn in the middle of the night. But they're not speech. They are tools, and if you can restrict the one in the name of neighborhood peace, you can regulate the other in the name of political cleanliness.

That leaves the more difficult matter of incumbency. Short of imposing term limits, an unhealthy proposal, the only answer is to continue pressuring politicians into acknowledging the inescapable truth about the damaging impact of vast amounts of money: It poisons the public's faith in the honesty of our governmental institutions.

When wealthy interests pony up millions of dollars in political donations, they expect results. Often enough, they get them.

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