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.