Campaign Finance Laws and the Supremes

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

Last week, the Supreme Court overturned what everyone thought was settled law, and instead opined that corporations were entitled to the same free speech as you or I supposedly enjoy. In the decision handed down in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court stated that corporations could fund independent political broadcasts in candidate elections without limitation. In this case, the Federal Election Commission banned Citizens United from broadcasting its film, “Hillary: The Movie” right before the 2008 Democratic primaries, as it deemed the film to be “electioneering communications”, banned under the McCain-Feingold Act.

Free speech uttered by an unfettered voice. It’s a heady idea, one which the country’s founders liked so well, they assigned the Constitution’s first amendment to its protection. As a reality, it’s often been more honored in the breach, but as an idea, it has always been at the forefront of who we are, of how we identify ourselves.

As determined by the Roberts’ Court, corporations and unions will now be able to pour unlimited funds into buying favorable political outcomes. They’re still prohibited from donating large amounts directly to the candidate of their choice, but they will be able to buy as much advertising time as they deem necessary to promote their preferred position, and their candidate. Any politician who attempts to stem this new corporate power will face their wrath, and their certain opposition in the next election.

The Supreme Court may have thought this was a decision that would pass, as so many others have, under the radar of the American people. After all, campaign finance laws are not particularly sexy, nor are they easily reduced to sound bites. And, the Court may have thought it was delineating more clearly laws that were too vague. Corporations and unions have been funding advertising campaigns using so-called “soft money” for years, establishing their position using issue ads rather than touting any particular candidate. We’re not stupid – we understand that it’s the soda and junk food manufacturers buying the ads asking us to tell our congressman that it’s not right or fair to tax soda and junk food purchases.

The outcry over the Citizens United decision was immediate and so strong that even President Obama, in his first State of the Union address, crossed the imaginary and traditionally unbreachable line that separates the executive and judicial branches, strongly criticizing the Court’s decision.

If this decision shows anything, it demonstrates that the need for campaign finance reform is critical, and that the continued power of special interests may be the root of all this country’s other troubles. Even scarier, the Citizens United decision may prove to be the death knell of any meaningful reform.

In their effort to guarantee everyone, including corporations and unions, the right of free speech, the Supremes’ decision only exacerbates the move from free speech to “fee speech”. Yes, we all still retain the right to say what we will, but without the dollars necessary to publicize our words, they become so much more white noise in an already static-filled world.

Money does talk, though, and it has a powerful voice, one that has been given full range in the brave new world crafted by the Supremes. Corporations (and unions, too, although with far shallower pockets) will now be allowed to actively advocate for one candidate over another, by name. They can buy as many ads as they like to promote their candidate. Of course, so can I – and this is the court’s position. But I lack the resources to do so. So that which theoretically should level the playing field, in practical terms disrupts it. I don’t have the money to purchase a single ad, even at my local movie theater, but a corporation who wants to promote its candidate can blast its ads during the Super Bowl, or light up Times Square 24/7. Even if I could reach deeply into my pockets, I can guarantee that corporate interests can always dig deeper.

This would not be a problem if I thought that corporations have my best interests at heart, but I’m not convinced they do. These are the same corporations that brought us thalidomide, lead-based paints, and the Exxon Valdez; what’s good for the corporate bottom line is often detrimental to my health, wellbeing and wallet.

In this land of “fee speech”, our elected officials serve the masters who sponsor their candidacies. This was true prior to the Court’s decision; the difference now is that the sponsorship is overt. Healthcare reform will now be openly underwritten by the insurance companies, energy policy by big oil and coal; the belief that our representatives protect the public interest will vanish.

Political change is normally a slow and deliberate process, often taking years, or even decades, before results are evident. How odd then that, on a single day in January, the Supreme Court swept away our previous understanding of protected speech. In the Court’s view, free speech is still protected, but now, more than ever, the purse controls what is heard.