Friday, January 21, 2011

When Did Money Become Speech?


On the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling (which struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law), I’m pondering the whole issue of political donations and money in politics – issues that have been on my mind for years. Some random thoughts…

Money and Speech

A friend of strong libertarian bent once said (in response to me saying we needed to restrict political contributions): “You can’t tell people what to do with their money.” He went on to say it was a free speech issue. The idea that money is speech is behind many of the legal decisions on this topic.

The thing is, however, we do tell people what they can and cannot do with their money. We make people pay taxes on what they earn. We don’t let people launder money. We don’t allow people to use their money to buy drugs. We block trade with certain countries.

And we don’t allow people to bribe other people. This is where it gets tricky. When does a political contribution pass from simply supporting the political process and/or a candidate/party, to an attempt to influence the politician or party (a quid pro quo as it were)? The federal individual limits on contributions attempted to answer this question.

Beyond this, I don’t see how telling people or organizations they can’t spend money to advertise is affecting speech. In this internet age, anyone with a computer can express his or her political opinions completely unfettered, and often to an extensive audience.

Corporations and “Personhood”

The main problem in my humble, non-legal mind, is corporate influence on the process. And this comes back to the issue of corporate “personhood.” By giving a corporation the same rights as an individual (which dates back to a number of court decision, notably several based on interpretations of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), we’ve allowed large corporations to take over our system.

There’s an enormous difference between donations from individuals and those from large organizations, particularly corporations. After all, these organizations spent $3.48 billion in 2009 (and had spent $2.6 billion as of November 2010) on lobbying. This doesn’t include their contributions to individual candidates, parties, and PACs. The amount of money available and the amount these companies are ready to spend dwarves individual donations (except those from the relatively small but ever-more-wealthy top few percent of earners). It can’t help but influence the political process.

The Endless Election Cycle

Don’t blame the politicians for the current mess: they’re stuck in a continuous election cycle, in no small part due to the money issue itself. Their re-election campaigns start the moment they’re elected. This need to seek continuous funding must reduce the amount of time they have to do the people’s business, not to mention making it much more difficult to stand on what they believe in. They could ignore the influence of donors and try to stand on principle – and these organizations would target them and take them down.

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