|01-23-2010, 11:22 PM||#1|
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Hot Springs, Ouachitah
Our view on money in politics: Courtís campaign ruling threatens the public interest
Itís hard to see what good can come from unleashing companies, unions.
Think American elections are already grossly distorted by special interests? Or that Congress and state legislatures are corrupted by payoffs thinly disguised as "campaign contributions"? Or that politicians already spend too much time grubbing for money?
It's about to get a lot worse.
For that, you can thank Thursday's needlessly broad decision by the Supreme Court to throw out a 63-year-old ban on corporations and unions buying ads to urge voters to support or reject specific candidates.
The court could, and should, have issued a narrow ruling that upheld the legitimate First Amendment interests of a conservative group that made a movie attacking Hillary Clinton when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, the 5-4 majority abandoned judicial modesty and overturned all or part of two previous decisions, including a 2003 ruling that declared that the ban was "firmly embedded in our law." It ruled that corporations enjoy the same rights to free speech as individuals, and money equals speech.
To be sure, any government limitation of political speech carries ominous overtones. But there also seems no doubt that upholding the principle in these circumstances assures troubling consequences.
For that very reason, state legislatures and Congress have struggled for more than a century to strike a balance that protects free speech while preventing deep-pocketed corporations and unions from manipulating electoral politics. Now, some of the strongest restrictions are gone.
The problem is that some special interests have stupendous amounts of money and lots of issues before Congress. Take Goldman Sachs, which benefited mightily from government bailouts and generated a 2009 bonus pool of $16.2 billion. Think the firm might be able to easily peel off, say, a cool billion to run ads against members of Congress who support a tax on Wall Street bonuses? Similarly, drug companies could try to get rid of lawmakers who want to bring generic drugs to the market more quickly.
Even more pernicious is the spending you'll never see, because it won't actually happen. All it will take is an implicit threat to a member of Congress, from say, a large bank that despises the idea of having to answer to a consumer financial regulatory commission: Vote for that and we'll spend $10 million against you this fall.
There's no obvious way to undo the damage. Critics talked vaguely Thursday about writing new restrictions on corporate spending, but constitutional experts say the ruling is so broad that it's hard to get around it.
In the long run, one answer is a better, cleaner campaign system, which Congress could help bring about by creating public financing of campaigns, a system that is already working to clean up politics in several states. Such a system would at least allow candidates to delink from corporations and other big-money interests.
Fortunately, the court left in place disclosure and disclaimer requirements. If donations and spending are reported immediately, candidates, good government groups or the news media could expose recipients of vast amounts of corporate or union money. That would give the public at least one weapon in the fight for clean government. But considering the firepower now in the hands of the other side, some more powerful artillery will need to be found.
Posted at 12:22 AM/ET, January 22, 2010 in USA TODAY editorial | Permalink