Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Supreme Court considering major campaign finance overhaul

Posted by sanityinjection on September 8, 2009

Politico reports that the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments this week in a case that could have major ramifications for US campaign finance law. Specifically, the court is considering weakening existing restrictions on political advertising by corporations, unions, and non-profit groups.

Under current law, these groups are allowed to fund advertising on specific issues such as health care reform or climate change, but they are not allowed to fund ads for or against a particular candidate for office. Although many changes have been made to campaign finance law over the years, this particular aspect has been with us for over 100 years, as concerns about the power of corporations to influence the federal government were already being raised in Teddy Roosevelt’s time.

Opponents of campaign finance restrictions have consistently argued that spending money on political advocacy is the equivalent of free speech, and that such restrictions are a violation of the First Amendment. In the past, the Court has been skeptical of this argument, but recently the Court seems to be more open to loosening restrictions.

One point that I have not heard discussed much in relation to this issue is the question of foreign influence. Foreign citizens are prohibited by law from contributing to US political campaigns. But suppose you have a corporation, based in the US, but whose Board of Directors are all citizens of some other country – China, for example. Wouldn’t allowing such a corporation to spend freely on ads backing or opposing candidates essentially allow rich foreigners – or worse, foreign governments – to evade the law and exert unwanted influence on US elections?

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. As a general rule I support fewer government restrictions on how individuals and groups are allowed to spend their money. But I have seen the potential corrupting influence of special interest groups in action, and I believe there is a compelling public interest  in combating that. On the other hand, I do think that corporations, unions, and other groups have the right to be heard on issues that are important to them – which they can be under current law. I am not convinced that current campaign finance restrictions are serving to muzzle free speech in practice. Witness the controversial op-ed piece by the CEO of Whole Foods opposing the House health care reform bill.

There is also an argument to be made that the Court is engaging in “judicial activism” and going beyond its mandate in expanding this case to rule on the broad scope of campaign finance restrictions. I haven’t reviewed the facts of the case closely enough to say whether I agree with this charge, but I do think those of us who oppose judicial activisim have an obligation not to dismiss it out of hand.

What do you think?

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8 Responses to “Supreme Court considering major campaign finance overhaul”

  1. That would be extremely dangerous for our country. It would give corporations far too much power to decide policy.

  2. Dan said

    Ahhhh but corporations and companies don’t vote. The real issue is that people don’t educate themselves on who they are voting into office and if they base thier decision on a 60 second spot on television then the US truly is in a sad state. And why is it too much to expect the politician to not be corrupted by the “special intrests” and do what it right by thier constituency and not what “corporations” want them to do.

    • Absolutely right. This shouldn’t have to be an issue, but unfortunately, it is. The question is, should our laws be designed for the way things ought to be, or the way they actually are?

      • Dan said

        No. Changing the laws is not addressing the issue. It would be similar to removing a splinter but not treating the infection that the splinter has caused. Our laws should be designed within the framework of the Constitution. We should hold our politicians responsible for what they do and vote them out of office if we feel they are corrupt or not representing our desires. We need to encourage each other to be informed instead of being politically ignorant and voting people in based on a party affiliation and what they say during an election cycle. Look at what they have done not what they say. Coporations and special intrests only have as much power as we let them have based on who we elect into office.

      • Again, I applaud your comments. Unfortunately, people like you who take their responsibility to hold government responsible seriously are the exception rather than the rule. I think you make a good point in asking whether we need laws to protect us from our own collective ignorance/stupidity. Normally that’s a question I answer in the negative, but given the very high stakes here I’m not so sure. We have raised generations of Americans who don’t know to think critically and who get most of their knowledge of everything in life from the television. If we get stuck with the consequences we can’t just take our proverbial ball and go home.

  3. The only real solution is public financing for elections. Every candidate gets the same amount and that’s all they can spend. Maybe we’d bet some candidates with a little more integrity.

    • Ben, I can understand why public financing seems like an attractive option, but I’ve seen it operate in practice at the state level. It mostly benefits fringe candidates with little public support. On the national level, it becomes moot because the political parties spend more money than the candidates themselves do.

  4. Tom Degan said

    Beautiful! Another nail in the slowly closing coffin of our democracy.

    I need a drink!

    Tom Degan

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