Sunday, January 24, 2010

Obama unloads on high court over campaign finance

From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Obama on Saturday unloaded on a divided Supreme Court for allowing more corporate influence over elections, intensifying his criticism of a ruling that has suddenly reshaped campaign rules in the midst of a midterm election year. The court's 5-4 decision on Thursday allows companies and unions to spend freely on ads that promote or target particular candidates by name, and lifts the barring of union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of campaigns.

“We don't need to give any more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” Obama said Saturday, devoting his weekly radio and Internet address to the topic. “And we don't intend to.”

The White House is working chiefly with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, on a bill pushing back on the court decision. The goal is to put forward legislation within two weeks, Van Hollen said Saturday, but the choices are limited by the nature of the court's First Amendment ruling.

Among the options under consideration are requiring the approval of a majority of shareholders before a corporation can run a political ad; requiring the CEO of the company to appear at the end of the ad so the public knows who is behind it; limiting the ad-spending of corporations that have received federal bailout money or that get federal contracts; and trimming down the privileges that come with legal corporate status if companies pump money into political campaigns.


Years ago I had a friendly argument with a good friend of mine who is a conservative. We were talking about the vast sums of money used to get candidates elected. My position was that, presumably, the American way is one man one vote, but the large concentrations of wealth that some individuals and organizations, namely corporations, are able to direct toward political purposes utterly undermines such a notion. My buddy's position was that money and free speech are indistinguishable, which is supported by
Supreme Court precedent, and that all campaign finance restrictions ought to be lifted.

"What we need," he said, "is complete transparency, so that voters know where political money is coming from, which enables them to see the bias in the information they receive about candidates, so they can make better informed decisions."

"But people don't pay much attention to that stuff," I replied, "and even if they did, who has the time to research all that crap? Besides, you know what
Goebbels said about repeating something enough until it becomes the truth, whether it's true or not. The loudest and most omnipresent voices win the day, regardless of the truth."

"Then people need to get it together as far as fund raising goes," he replied.

"But the super rich and corporations have a wildly unfair advantage as far as fund raising goes!" I shot back. "The net result here is that if you have shit loads of money, you have a much much much bigger say in how our country functions."

"Well yeah," he said, "because money and free speech cannot be separated."

"But what about democracy?" I asked.

"What about democracy? This is democracy."

We went back and forth on that point for a few minutes until I realized that neither of us had anything else to say. He was just fine with money trumping voting. I was not.

Leaving aside for this post the disturbing notion that corporations, which are not citizens, or even human beings for that matter, should have the same first amendment rights that people do, we still have a problem that effectively renders the concept of one man one vote almost totally moot: in the United States, according to the Constitution, money equals free speech. The President has some decent ideas about how to blunt this latest Supreme Court ruling, but ultimately there is absolutely nothing he or the Congress can do about the fact that more money means more influence, that voting is largely ceremonial these days, without much meaningful substance, and that we are effectively ruled by corporations and the super wealthy.

When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the Founders could not possibly foresee this. Speech was cheap. One could buy or borrow or rent a printing press and distribute pamphlets, or obtain a soapbox for free and rail against or for whatever ideas he liked. No one imagined the rise of mass communication, and the effect it would have on the political process. I'm not one to slavishly adhere to "Founders intent" or whatever, but I think it's safe to say that if they could see what we call "democracy" today, they'd be horrified. This is not the nation they risked their lives to create.

It now appears that the only way out of this is by amending the Constitution, something that takes the money out, or at least heavily marginalizes its effect on politics. Unfortunately, everyone in Congress was elected with corporate cash. Everyone. And they depend on that money for reelection. No fucking way they're going to kill the golden goose, and it doesn't matter one bit whether it's good for the country. I mean, after all, they're no longer our representatives: they represent the corporations and the super rich.

How do citizens get a constitutional convention going? Do citizens even care?