Tag Archives: Gloom and Doom

SCOTUS Follow-Up

22 Jan

Back in September, when the case was being argued, I wrote a piece on the corporate citizen-hood/free speech suit appearing before the Supreme Court. At the time, I advocated for free speech to be upheld, and it was yesterday, by the predictable 5-4 vote. Now the hand-wringing about the evils of irresponsibile corporations has begun anew. Alan is conflicted about whether its good or bad. Others are less generous, and seem to believe 2012 was reality TV. But don’t worry – the world is not ending, and this decision is more narrow than the hand wringers admit.

First, the principle. Corporations, for-profit and non-profit, special interest and business related, big and small, are just groups of people who get together for a similar purpose. Why those people should lose their collective right to free speech once they join that group is not at all clear. The specifics of this case are important: the FEC regulated a blatantly political movie 30 days out from an election, because it was political speech. If that political speech can be restricted, what else? Corporations produce books on political topics, and corporations produce “news programs” on political topics. At the moment, Newscorp (FOX) and GE (MSNBC) get their opinion out, but few others.

Second, the reality. First, and most importantly, his ruling DOES NOT ALLOW UNRESITRICTED DONATIONS TO POLTICIANS, no matter what opinion you may read to the contrary. It allows corporations to run as many TV ads as they want within 30 days of an election. Up until now, politicians and parties could only run ads during that time. Since special interests could, and can still, donate unlimited soft money to the parties, they still had the ability to advertise, but only when using the pass through. The main difference this decision may make? The “Paid for” byline at the bottom of the ads will change from DNC to Your Friendly Neighborhood Energy Companies or CSEA.

The second reality issue is that corporate money is better spent many other ways. If I am a large evil corporation that wishes to influence policy, my money is better spent lobbying a specific senator on a specific committee, rather than television advertising. This does not open the flood gates to corporate and union money in politics. Its already there, and being spent more effectively on K-street lobbying firms. 

Which leads us to the final point. Chris Smith uses yesterday’s ruling as an opportunity to advance his cause of publicly funded elections. Its a campaign that is as earnest as it is misguided and impractical. The goal itself is laudable: politicians uncorrupted by monetary influences would presumably create better policy. The best argument for this is the current presence of money and absence of statesmanlike thought. But disenfranchisement and limiting free speech are not the way to achieve this. Our free public square discourse has devolved into a shouting match. But allowing no one to speak (or everyone to whisper) is worse. There is an illiberal reflex of liberals, when confronted with choices they do not approve of (SUVs, suburbs, skipping healthcare insurance, political ads, etc), to seek to limit the choice options to only acceptable alternatives. A state funded election system creates an echo chamber and feedback loop. Money is the outside, non-governmental influence. It may be corrupting, but it is also freeing. I want outsiders, non-government groups influencing my politicians. The alternative is a self-perpetuating system moved beyond the reach of the American public to change it.