Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Citizens United v. FEC

A brief summary:

How it used to be: Corporations and unions were barred from broadcasting ads designed to affect an election outcomes. It was illegal for such an entity to run an ad that saying, "Defeat Candidate X." These regulations were in place under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (or the McCain-Feingold Act).

How it is: Now, it’s legal. Companies, unions, and independent organizations can legally advertise for or against a federal candidate during election season, including the final days before an election.

Notes: There are still limits on what such institutions are permitted to contribute to a candidate directly. Also, all contributions (and presumably expenditures) must be documented and donors identified. There is still a universe of rules and mandates that regulate every aspect political activity (Take it from someone who has run for office; if you want to spend or accept any appreciable amount of money for campaigning, there are enough rules to follow, backed up by the threat of fines and imprisonment, to make your head spin. Ultimately, such laws do restrict the little guy more than they restrict the people whose behavior they're intended to regulate, but that's an argument for a different post).

Now there’s this outcry about how corporate interests are going to decide elections and unions are going to appoint who gets into office because of all their newly granted influence, etc. I won’t deny that this does give more power to groups of organized individuals, so there’s truth to that allegation. But I’m not blown away by it. Maybe I’m not alarmed as much because I honestly never knew electioneering regulations were really that restricted to begin with. I had just assumed that politicians were elected in large part by the special interests they serve, regardless of how they’re legally allowed to advertise. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes the whole election process isn’t pretty much a complete sham anyway? Is it really substantially any more corrupt now than it was before Citizens United v. FEC?

Love it or hate it, the "speech" of a corporation or a union (which are groups of individuals) is just as guaranteed under the first amendment as is the speech of any individual. Whether it’s going to flood the airwaves with more ads or tip an election in favor of someone is irrelevant. That very behavior, in fact, is a completely predictable consequence of freedom of expression. People with money will use it how they want. For whatever reason, you may not like the fact that an organized group can pool its resources and campaign against someone. But you should at least be happy that the same protection afforded them is afforded to you. Technically.

The worst part of this decision is that it distracts from the real problem, which is the immense power politicians have to abuse in the first place. This is the heart of the issue that nobody ever mentions and seemingly nobody puts their finger on. There is nothing inherently wrong with organized groups of people getting together, pooling their resources, and using them to campaign for or against a candidate as hard as they can. Nothing. Whether it’s you, me, your local teamsters, NJEA, SEIU, Exxon, or Walmart. Go ahead, this is America. What’s wrong is the fact that the politicians, once elected, are able to wield the power of the law to politically help their donors/friends and punish their enemies.

That is the real problem, and the only solution is to bar the government of the power to make or break people or industries in such a manner. So long as we have a government that is in a position to hand out favors to begin with, we will always have people down here in the trenches like you and me getting together and fighting for their piece of the pie with all the resources at their disposal. Really, it’s no different from anything else. No set of mere campaign finance laws, no matter how restrictive, will ever effectively stop organizations from getting what they want out of the people in government who call the shots. The best that strict campaign finance laws really offer us is the illusion of honesty and fairness in politics. Don’t fall for it.

Free speech is constitutional, and federal abuse of power is unconstitutional. Disregarding the former does not put us on the path to fixing the latter. Whenever we ignore our founding documents, we do so at our own peril.

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