After Brad Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to criticize the IRS’s proposed rules on tax-exempt political activity, Paul Ryan of the Campaign legal Center answered in a letter to the editor. Smith had complained about an agency “power grab” cheered on by anti-speech zealots on the left. Ryan’s villain was the same—the IRS—but in this instance he depicted an agency struggling to its feet after years of “derelict” failure to police special interest misuse of the law.

In this debate, it seems no one can be just mistaken. Everyone must be bad. The IRS can’t be confused and unsure of its course, left on its own by Congress. It must be grabbing power, colluding with the Left, helping to smoke out conservative donors and silence the nonprofits they support. And, by the opposing account, those like Brad Smith who are skeptical of the IRS’s regulatory involvement in politics must have the goal of securing “special interest” control of the political process.

What explains the tone and slashing rhetoric of the typical campaign finance exchange? Strong convictions are certainly evident, but there is more here than disagreements over the law and questions of legal interpretation. Normally there is no cause for fisticuffs over the definition of “exclusively” or “primarily.” Normally—except this is a case where the charge of each side against the other is that it is concealing and operating on low political motive. Now maybe this complaint is fairly brought against a few, some of the time: here and there, there are surely “zealots” and opportunists. But as a general description of what moves those who favor active regulation and those who question it, this is a caricature.

These attacks and oversimplifications are not confined to the arguments between parties or think tanks or other regulated entities. Much of the reporting and editorial opinion runs on pre-determined, unvarying tracks—whatever the developments in the law and regardless of whether they are generated by legislatures, courts, or regulators. Here is a small sampling of press and opinion on the role of money in politics, drawn from periods before and after McCain-Feingold and before and after Citizens United.

1986 (before McCain-Feingold):

“Political influence is a growth industry.” “Campaign contributions are flooding out of the PACs.” (Editorial in The New York Times, August 11, 1986).

“Political strategists have found so many ways to evade Federal statutes that the laws on campaign financing have been seriously undermined….” (The New York Times, October 29, 1986).

2004 (after McCain-Feingold), two headlines:

Money Talks Louder Than Ever (The New York Times, November 8, 2004).

Super Rich Step into Political Vacuum: McCain-Feingold Paved the Way for 527s (The Washington Post, October 17, 2004).

2013, 2014 (after Citizens United):

“More money flowing into politics + understaffed agency riven by partisan divides = recipe for chaos.” (The Washington Post, December 18, 2013).

Citizens United is “allowing [corporations and wealthy interests] to spend unlimited sums to purchase lawmakers” and they have responded by “buying a Congress determined to shrink government and to weaken its reach….” (The Washington Post, January 3, 2014)

So, decades into this discussion, the points and counter-points are well-established. Money spent on politics represents healthy speech; no, it is the instrument by which special interests control the government and assure that the wealthy dominate the dialogue. New laws and rules are unneeded and oppressive; no, they are indispensable to the repair of disastrous breaches in basic statutory safeguards. And while these claims are batted back and forth, usually accompanied by imputations of bad faith, each era of campaign finance law and practice is reported to be as bad as the one before it, if not worse.

This is now all routine. None are managing to persuade any others not already in their corner. And it’s possible that the political reform debate will remain stuck in just this place—a way of expressing strong political disagreement, frustration, and suspicion. Or maybe this new year will be different. Or a year or two from now.

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