Home > Politics > Victory for Principle and the Power of Money

Victory for Principle and the Power of Money

The Supreme Court’s decision that overturns 60+ years of established law limiting corporate dollars for the funding of political advertising is an important one with a lot of nuance.

It involves a very real principle. But the true winner is the power of money, seen by a 5-4 majority of the court, as a vehicle for political expression worthy of 1st amendment protections.

First off, this helpful guide from the Washington Post:

What’s out:

— A 63-year-old prohibition on corporations using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads.
— A prohibition contained in the McCain-Feingold Act that bars issue-oriented ads paid for by corporations or unions 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

Still in:

— A century-old ban on donations by corporations from their treasuries directly to candidates.
— The requirement that any corporation spending more than $10,000 in a year to produce or air a campaign ad covered by federal restrictions must file a report with the Federal Election Commission, revealing the names and addresses of anyone who contributed $1,000 or more to the ad’s preparation or distribution.
— The requirement that an ad include a disclaimer stating who is responsible for it, if the ad is not authorized by a candidate or political committee.

Judicial Activism

It’s safe to say, I think, that the conservative majority that overturned a lot of established law in this area took a pretty activist approach. This was not a narrow decision. Considering the general mantra from conservatives about strict interpretation of the law and respect for precedent, this ruling really does seem to turn that premise on its head.

Chief Justice John Roberts, anticipating this argument writes, in essence, that any decision that’s “right” trumps the principle of leaving established law alone. He maintains that if  it were taken to its extreme, “…segregation would be legal, minimum wage laws would be unconstitutional and the government could wiretap ordinary criminal suspects without first obtaining warrants.”

Ok, there’s some logic there. But this is not in the same league as segregation and wiretapping. The idea that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals does not strike me as running to the rescue of the oppressed. But there is a legitimate principle at stake here.

The ACLU and the NRA

The American Civil Liberties Union filed amicus briefs in favor of the winning argument in this case. The ACLU believes that all speech is protected, including speech (specifically, a political documentary that attacked Hillary Clinton) that is funded by corporations. The National Rifle Association takes the same position. I don’t know how often these two organizations agree on anything, but I think it’s rare, and in this case, interesting. There are a lot of constitutional experts who would normally be labeled as “liberal” who applaud the decision because, in their view, free speech trumps all. I’m not sure this is as a “right vs left” issue.

The Effects

Is it really the end of the world as many are hysterically crying out? Individual corporations have historically not wanted to get specifically and overtly into partisan politics because they’re sensitive about alienating consumers. Their trade associations have no such concerns. And corporations will contribute to those groups so their economic interests will be represented and they will produce lots and lots of ads.

Unions, of course, have also just won the same rights as corporations, so they too, will get to spend what they want on political advertising. I don’t know how this plays out in regard to partisan politics. I’m not convinced every corporate cause is necessarily a Republican or conservative one. Democrats have been known to seek corporate dollars too. In fact, it seems more likely that traditionally progressive labor unions are more predictable in their partisan patterns and favor many of the liberals who are howling the loudest about the Supreme Court ruling.

But I can see that a company that profits with less environmental regulation, like power and oil interests, just might be inclined to spend lots of money on candidates who want to weaken environmental laws. Insurance companies would do the same for candidates who oppose important aspects of health reform law. And the fear is that there will be back-room deals in which candidates will literally sell their positions in exchange for critical advertising dollars from corporations or the trade associations representing them.

A Clouded Conclusion

I think this was a win for free speech, but a technical, possibly Pyrrhic victory. It certainly puts a dent in the notion that a conservative Supreme Court bases its philosophy on strict adherence to settled law. It is likely to come at the cost of ever billions more dollars and their influence infecting the political process.

But then, are we really so naïve as to think money isn’t already a huge factor in politics? A study by the University of Maryland finds that U.S. House candidates spend 34% of their time raising money.  It’s the same for the Senate.

In a report from a consortium of interest groups favoring public financing of elections, Former South Carolina Democratic Senator, Fritz Hollings, notes that Congressional recesses have grown exponentially since the 1960’s- specifically so politicians can go out and raise money:

In February it used to be Washington ’s Birthday and one for Lincoln’s. Now we’ve combined them so we can take a week off to raise money. There’s Easter week, Memorial Day week, Fourth of July week and the whole month of August. There’s Columbus Day week, Thanksgiving week and the year-end holidays. While in town, we hold breakfast fundraisers, lunch fundraisers and caucuses to raise funds.”

So now there will be more money for politicians to fight for- on top of the mountains of cash already in the game. The biggest effect of the court ruling may well be increased public cynicism about the integrity of representative government.

Most folks just don’t earn enough money to buy themselves a Congressman. They couldn’t afford it before the court ruling- and they won’t be able to after it.

  1. jeff
    January 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    thanks for shedding some light and a glimmer of hope through all this hysteria. oberman sounded last night like it was the end of the world as we know it. at least now its official; you can buy your congressman like you would pick out a prostitute. “the chair recognizes the senator from the great state of Exxon.” I’m wondering at what point the people gave up on their government. surely it was way before the Iraq war sponsored by Halliburton. I guess we don’t care about how our government is run until it comes up and bites us in the ass. Not that we could do anything about it. President Obama can’t get a health plan through unless it favors the insurance companies. I’m moving to Mexico.

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