Communications Department

NRLC Letter to House of Representatives in opposition to revised Shays-Meehan Campaign finance reform bill (H.R. 2356)

Jul 2, 2001 | Free Speech Issues

July 2, 2001
RE: In opposition to revised Shays-Meehan Campaign finance reform bill (H.R. 2356)

Dear Member of Congress:

During the week of July 9, the House is expected to take up the Shays-Meehan bill, the latest version of which was introduced yesterday (H.R. 2356). The revised bill retains nearly all of the elements of the Senate-passed version of the McCain-Feingold bill (S. 27) to which the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) has previously expressed strong opposition.

Because the Shays-Meehan bill contains restrictions that would greatly impair the rights of NRLC and its affiliates to effectively inform the public about legislation in Congress, and would place both such organizations and members of Congress at legal risk for engaging in constitutionally protected communications regarding public policy issues, NRLC strongly urges you to oppose this legislation. NRLC will include any vote on final passage of the Shays-Meehan bill in the NRLC scorecard of key congressional roll calls for 2001.

NRLC’s negative assessment of some key provisions of the Senate bill, which have been retained in the Senate bill, finds support in the commentary of many independent analysts. Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that “the authors of the Senate bill have gone way too far in restricting freedom of speech.” Syndicated columnist Mike Kelly called the bill “a reeking mess . . . an unsupportable, unconstitutional assault on the rights to speak and associate freely.” Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer concluded, “It is hard to think of a more frontal assault on the First Amendment.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 24) editorialized:

What many well-meaning supporters don’t realize, however, is that the McCain-Feingold bill that passed the Senate is deeply flawed and a serious threat to free speech. Does the nation need campaign finance reform? Yes it does — but not at the risk of censoring the speech that is the lifeblood of a democratic election campaign. When the House takes up campaign finance reform after the July 4 recess, it should make sure it removes the blatantly unconstitutional provisions in the Senate version of the bill. . . . that broad ban on electioneering amounts to a twin-pronged attack on the First Amendment and the democratic process. We don’t want to destroy our system of free elections in order to save them.”

Among the most objectionable provisions of the bill are those dealing with issue advocacy and “coordinated” activity.

With respect to issue advocacy: Sections 201, 203, and 204 of H.R. 2356 retain the Senate bill’s unconstitutional restrictions on broadcast issue ads. The net effect of these provisions is to ban NRLC, NRLC affiliates, and all other 501(c)(4) advocacy corporations (but not PACs) from funding TV or radio ads that even mention the name of a local member of Congress for 30 days before a state’s congressional primary, and for another 60 days before the general election (or a runoff election). This restriction applies to any ad that “can be received” by 50,000 or more “persons,” including minors, within a district — which covers nearly any TV or radio ad, since few persons do not possess TVs and radios.

For example, if the House takes up a bill dealing with unborn victims of violence on March 4, 2002, NRLC would be prohibited from running ads the week before the vote on Christian radio stations in the districts of House members in California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, urging, “Please call Congressman [name] and ask him to vote for the bill to protect unborn victims of violence.”

Please note that a limited “exception” (the “Snowe-Jeffords” provision) in the original 2001 McCain-Feingold bill to allow 501(c)(4) advocacy groups to sponsor such ads, using funds raised from restricted and publicly identified donors, was effectively nullified by adoption of a Wellstone amendment that has been retained in H.R. 2356 (Section 204). Thus, the House bill does not permit non-PACs to sponsor such ads while requiring “disclosure” — rather, it bans them outright.

It is noteworthy that even Common Cause deputy legislative director Matt Keller admitted the ad restriction in the Senate bill was “problematic” and “probably overboard,” adding, “But we’ll take our chances in the Supreme Court.” (National Catholic Register, April 22)

If the ban on issue ads is struck down as unconstitutional, Section 201 contains a “backup” provision, based on a Specter amendment, that in some respects is even worse. The backup provision is not limited to pre-election time periods, but would apply all year-round to any broadcast ad that “promotes,” “supports,” “attacks,” or “opposes” a “candidate,” and that is “suggestive of no plausible meaning other than an exhortation to vote for or against a specific candidate.” Under this sweeping and vague standard, running a radio ad today — 16 months before the next election — in which the statement was made, “Congressman Jones is pro-life,” could subject an organization to a costly investigation by the FEC as to whether listeners who heard the ad would understand the term “pro-life” to be “suggestive” that they should vote for Congressman Jones, etc.

The sections on “coordinated” activity (Sections 211 and 214) would create a web of tripwires that would place incumbent lawmakers and advocacy groups at great legal risk for engaging in cooperative or parallel activities in support of common legislative goals. “Coordination” is broadly defined to include “any general or particular understanding” with a candidate which is associated with any later activity (not just broadcast ads) deemed to be “in connection with” a candidate’s election — a phrase which the U.S. Supreme Court has held is impermissibly vague and overbroad (Massachusetts Citizens for Life v. FEC, 1986).

Moreover, the bill (Section 214) explicitly repudiates current law by specifying that any FEC regulations issued to enforce the anti-coordination provisions “shall not require collaboration or agreement to establish coordination.” Under this language, an advocacy group and a member of Congress could be deemed to have engaged in illegal “coordinated” activity, for example, if the group distributed printed literature publicizing the results of a candidate questionnaire or “pledge” on one or more issues.

Detailed legal analyses of the provisions of the Senate-passed bill, most of which are replicated in H.R. 2356, are available at the website of the James Madison Center for Free Speech at Additional information on how such provisions would adversely affect NRLC, NRLC affiliates, and other citizen groups are found at

Thank you for your consideration of NRLC’s position on this legislation.


Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director

Categories: Free Speech Issues