Friday, January 22, 2010


The Supremes on campaign financing

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-to-4 decision with significant consequences for elections in this country. Reversing several prior courts’ decisions, they declared unconstitutional the restrictions on campaign donations from corporations and labour unions.

There are valid arguments on both sides of this decision. Unfortunately, the main point taken by the majority is not one of them. The court has long and inexplicably supported the idea that money equates to speech — specifically, that donating money is a first-amendment right, amounting to free speech. That there was any intent toward that by the authors of the constitution is just silly. Freedom of speech was meant to protect people who would speak out, disseminate ideas, whether popular or not. It was never meant to allow the bankrolling of political candidates.

But even more ludicrous, on its very face, is the idea that corporations should have the same first-amendment rights as individuals. Yet Justice Kennedy, in the majority decision, says just that: “The court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations.”

Of course, the argument against that is the undue control that corporations can exert. With the enormous financial resources wielded by a large company, it can buy the loyalty of a candidate with donations, and intimidate legislators by toppling their colleagues who vote against the company’s interests.

This isn’t an idle fear: there are many ways for this to happen now. Allowing open financial support on a large scale just makes it much, much worse. And the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has just given the green light.

Yet the standard conservative argument for opening this up is also valid: by limiting contributions, we limit the ability for opposition candidates to raise funds with which to run campaigns. If we broaden the fundraising opportunities, we broaden the potential candidate pool. We make it possible for the average citizen to run for office.

Yet we don’t want the “average citizen” to wind up running with corporate interests on her back.

There is another answer. To even the chances for the average citizen, we can make sure she can come by the millions necessary to run for office. Or we can make sure that millions are not necessary.

Instead of campaign finance limits, we need campaign spending limits. The amount of money — and time — spent on political campaigns in this country is insane. Strict limits on both will save a lot of ridiculous waste, while putting elected office within reach of every citizen with the interest in serving.

And then the voters could decide, as our founders intended.

Update, 6 p.m.: The New York Times has a good editorial on this decision. They, too, think the majority view is abusive and inappropriate.


Ray said...

Robert Reich has a good suggestion:

Jim Fenton said...

Campaign spending limits would be great, but wouldn't solve the problem here. The "corporate free speech" that's enabled by this ruling has to do with issue advertising, not the spending of a particular candidate. The argument would remain that this isn't campaign spending.

scouter573 said...

The fundamental confusion here is not about free speech, it is about the concept of a corporation as a person. If a corporation truly has the rights and responsibilities of a person, let them vote. And when they break the law, take them to prison. Let's debate what it means to take a corporation to prison - I start the discussion with the Board of Directors. If someone makes a car that fails and kills someone, take the Board of Directors to prison. If a corporation knowingly withholds safety information about recreational drugs (tobacco), take the Board of Directors to prison. If a corporation defrauds customers, take the Board of Directors to jail. If the corporation does something particularly heinous (such as killing a group of people), put the Board of Directors on Death Row. Then let's see how long this concept of "corporation as a person" lasts.

Dadinck said...

All well said. Let me add that if there are no limits, why not let the candidate who can raise the most funds win, and forgo the election?

What REALLY should happen is that all of the fund raising goes into a pot and every candidate on that level splits the pot so that all have equal footing during the election.

But, we can't have equality in the USA, can we?

Barry Leiba said...

That's basically how the optional contribution you can designate on your tax form works. But, yes, there's an idea: make that universal. You can contribute to the will of the people.

I like it.

Barry Leiba said...

I just got a chance to read Robert Reich's suggestion, which Ray points to above.

How does this (Reich's "shareholder protection" plan) not create an incentive for a bizarre investment strategy, wherein one preferentially invests in companies that make lots of political contributions, with the intent of refusing all contributions, and then one banks the extra dividends as additional return on one's investment?