This week the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could essentially give as much money as they wish to political campaigns. There are a lot of people who think this is a bad idea, chief among them is President Obama. On the other side of the fence, the Louisville Courier-Journal posted excerpts from a statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He said, “With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day.”
The more I researched this, the more I discovered how complex it was. I found that is not your regular, everyday, Democrat vs. Republican issue. There was not as much reflexive opinions as I had anticipated. You know, the kind where an individual feels compelled to agree or disagree with an outside event based on their affiliation. (i.e. Harry Ried’s comments about Obama’s electability). Instead, I found that the parties themselves were actually in a bit of agreement in disliking the opinion of the court, though admittedly not with the same fervor.
The Washington Post ran a small article in which they asked different individuals what they thought of the ruling, the results were interesting.
Some, like Mark Elias, of the Democratic National Committee are concerned that this ability to run high priced ads will ultimately hurt the ability of the candidate and their party to define themselves. This fear was echoed by those on the right as well. Ben Ginsburg who worked on the Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004 stated that in his mind “the voice of the candidates and parties just got quieter.” He believes this imbalance must be fixed, and this means “letting the parties raise much more money to fund the campaigns”.
I was beginning to see a pattern here. Both party establishments are against this because they know this means less money going directly to them. This is not exactly a new trend. It’s been happening for quite a while. In December of 2007 The Wall Street Journal documented how the Campaign Finance laws that created special interest groups had siphoned money from the traditional parties. Instead it’s the PAC’s that were getting all the cash now. This ruling, it seems, is just another blow to the party bank account.
Another group that doesn’t like this is the Service Employees International Union. Their spokeswoman, Anna Burger, in the previously mentioned Washington Post article said, “The court’s decision has said loud and clear that Mr. Smith has no business in Washington — that seat’s been sponsored by Wal-Mart.” Great rhetoric until she added, “our 2.2 million members are not going to sit idly by and watch working people get sidelined. Unions like ours are here to give a voice to working people.” So, according to her, the moral value of large campaign contributions are based on their origins. She represents the little people, so hers are good. Wal-Mart, evidently does not represent the common man (or at least isn’t unionized, hmmm) and therefore should not be allowed to contribute.
Like the fear of the party establishment, the unions are interested in keeping out competing message traffic. Not just if they happen to disagree with the message, but because, in effect, they are competing for the privilege of delivering the message. Those organizations, parties and unions alike are used to getting the big bucks. They, of course, want to continue to get the big bucks. Lose control of the money, lose control of the message. Entrenched power continues to fortify it’s position.
Ironically, much of our situation has been brought on by earlier attempts to regulate campaign finance. The system is now so legally complicated that it has become a cottage industry. You really do need a lawyer to get your message out. Be on the wrong end of the tax code and face big penalties. Just ask the Sierra Club. They were fined $28,000 for distributing pamphlets during the 2004 election.
It’s now to the point that instead of competing about message, we can just play “gotcha” politics with the law. In September of 2008 Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe went after environmental groups because they supported Democratic Candidates. While their conduct may have been technically illegal, does their support for Democratic candidates really surprise anyone? I am more interested in hearing why Senator Inhofe’s ideas are good, or why the groups he opposes ideas are bad.
In the end, I think we as a nation should embrace the reality of the situation. Money will always find its way into politics. Attempts at regulating it only make the process more difficult and complex, which leads to only those groups that can afford the lawyers having any real access. Arguments should never be won on a technicality, especially those that affect an entire nation.
While this ruling will certainly be a positive for the corporations, I believe it can also be a positive for all those seeking to exercise their voice, as well as those seeking to understand the issues. Certainly, there will be those who use this freedom to slander and defame those they disagree with, but any freedom by its nature can be used for ill purposes. It’s the risk we take. We must remember that truth is found in the vigorous competition of ideas. The more we attempt to regulate the field of play, the more we give advantage to those who seek to game the system. This ruling is a step in the direction of openness and that is good. It will not cure all our problems, but my hope is that the second and third order effects will be a net positive for the political system.