Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Freedom of Money

The recent Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision on election contributions (McCutcheon v FEC) has raised varied reactions as do most rulings by our highest court. The court again ruled to take additional teeth out of the federal election laws. This is an issue that I wrestle with. There is a tendency to side with those who argue it is our freedom of speech to support our political candidates in any way we can including unlimited contributions. There is also my tendency to think our political system has been corrupted by big money. 

My longtime friend, fellow blogger and sometimes partner in crime, Dennis Sherrard, posted his thoughts on his blog Indies Are Us. It got me thinking again about this subject. He contends that the candidates' war chests need to be put on a diet. 

I won't pretend to know all the legal ins and out of the ruling but that won't stop me from stating my opinion. Rather than debate this one Supreme Court decision let me point out some concepts that trouble me. Concepts that were used by Chief Justice Roberts in his majority opinion.

The first is that money is equivalent to speech and is therefore protected under the first amendment. Here is the text of the very short and very important first amendment to our Constitution:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

I don't see any reference to money. I also contend that money is treated differently than speech in our society and legal system. I can vocally and in print advocate that heroin, cocaine or automatic weapons should be legal and available to everyone. If I buy, with money, illegal drugs or a Thompson sub-machine gun I can be arrested. If I say that I want Senator Leghorn to vote for the dam project it's OK. If I give Foghorn say $5,200 to vote for the damn dam project it's a bribe. Of course if I give the Senator $5,200 for his general campaign we are again in the clear.  

Another contention is that corporations have the same rights as people. Well that's just complete bullshit. Again, check the first amendment. See any reference to corporations? Corporations are not people. They can't vote or hold office. They can't get married, regardless of their sexual preference. They can't adopt children. They can't be put in jail. Corporations are owned by people. Isn't it illegal to own people? So are stockholders actually slave owners or maybe a corporation isn't really a person. 
Corporations and labor unions are currently banned from direct contributions to political campaigns but they can establish Political Action Committees (PAC) which have no limits. To me that's like denying me personally from contributing but allowing me to get Aunt Margaret and Uncle John to organize a campaign fund that I can give unlimited funds to. Have you ever worked somewhere that is big on United Way contributions. Has your boss ever been the company chair or even worse the local campaign chair? Try to resist contributing. Your career will suffer. It's the same with contributions to corporate or union PACs. Of course once you do give your involuntary contribution, you have no control over how the PAC money is spent.  

Chief Justice Roberts contends that many unpleasant activities are protected by the first amendment such as flag burning and Nazi or KKK parades. That is true and that is a good thing. He contends that there is no evidence of bribery or even the appearance of any such corruption in our political landscape. I contend that he is either stupid, blind, politically motivated or very naive. The problem with the big money influx into politics is that it does influence their votes and most of us have no influence. I have one vote and a $1.98 for a candidate. The Koch brothers have a couple of votes and $1.98 billions. Who's phone call will the politician accept? Who's pet project will get put to a vote? The evidence is undeniable if not specific. The big money interests win the congressional votes over and over again. Corrupt and law breaking corporations hardly ever are really punished, unlike actual poor people who go to prison.

I don't know the answer to this problem. I do know that it is broken. In my perfect world I would allow everyone to contribute as much money as they want to as many candidates as they want. The alternative would be to allow no private contributions. All candidates would be publicly funded at a relatively low amount. I would also significantly strengthen the bribery and corruption laws. I would hold corporate executives and directors responsible for what their companies do. That would include prison time and banishment from corporate life, not just a fine that the stockholders ultimately pay. Politicians would be under the microscope. Bribery and influence peddling laws would be strengthened.

Nobody ever said that this democracy stuff would be easy. This issue is at the root of democracy. Can a few rich folks control our government or can the majority rule? Can the Supreme Court bestow human rights and protections onto organizations? 

Unfortunately, like everything else in Washington, the SCOTUS has become predictably partisan. Almost every decision comes down to a 5-4 vote. That's OK, but it is always the same five on one side and the same four on the other. Right now the conservatives hold the majority. How long will that be the case? Like congress, the SCOTUS votes should not be so predictable. There should be some room for compromise based on the facts and situation, not just some hardcore party plank. We need the pendulum to stay nearer the middle, not too far right and not too far left. 

What is your solution to campaign financing? 


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