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So the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that corporations, unions and non-profits can spend freely on behalf of federal candidates and issues. The 5-4 decision blew up a century's worth of law and court precedent aimed at keeping direct corporate money out of politics.
(I'm waiting for a strong response from all those who believe unelected judges should never trump the authority of a popularly elected legislature. There were a bunch of them around after last April's Iowa marriage ruling. Where did they go? Hello?)
The court essentially ruled that corporations have the same political speech rights as individuals.
From the Times of New York:
The 5-to-4 decision was a doctrinal earthquake but also a political and practical one. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision, which also applies to labor unions and other organizations, to reshape the way elections are conducted.
“If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included the four members of its conservative wing, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
Folks on the right are giddy with dreams of all the cash they'll rake in between now and November. People on the left are losing their minds, arguing that democracy is now for sale. I share some of those misgivings, but when exactly was democracy not for sale?
I mean, did the health care industry really have any problem influencing the reform debate? Have poor, muzzled corporations found it hard to have their voices heard on energy or tax policy? No way.
I'm always skeptical of first-reads on this sort of stuff. It's a hefty ruling with massive implications, to be sure. I'm not sure we have any clear idea yet how this will actually play out. We'll know more when the shouting stops.
I'm a First Amendment guy, clearly, so I welcome the very strong, broad advocacy of free speech in the ruling. I wonder what this might mean for other forms of regulated speech, such as broadcast decency laws etc. Tossing the government out of the speech restricting biz could have some interesting results. Lawyers will not go hungry.
I've long agreed with the premise that campaign money is the equivalent of political speech. But I've always coupled that belief with a desire for incredibly rigorous public reporting requirements. I'd require candidates to report every donation they get five minutes after the check lands in their hot little hands, if possible. If that's too hard, don't run.
Unfortunately, we've had a lot of advocacy for speech and not nearly enough for disclosure.
But should corporations, a creation of legal paper-shuffling, have the same free speech rights as living, breathing individuals? That I'm less crazy about.
Speech is one thing. Volume is another.
My own political, marketing/advertising budget is limited to a bumper sticker and a couple of buttons. I have a feeling Microsoft's or Capital One's political speech may be heard more clearly than mine.
What's in your wallet? Mine's tapped.
I'm also not subject to a complicated ownership structure that includes foreign investors and even foreign governments. How's that going to work?
Still, corporations and unions already form PACs that pour loads of money into campaigns and issues. We're kidding ourselves if we think truckloads of corporate money weren't already flowing into political speech long before today's ruling.
Republicans are excited about this, but Unions and left-leaning corporations/non-profits will also weigh in heavily. And in this throw-the-bums-out atmosphere where voters are sick of corruption and cronyism, how closely do candidates actually want to be tied to corporations? Refusing corporate money will become a campaign tactic that could be appealing to voters.
Yeah, I know, raking in millions to spend on beating your opponent to a pulp has its upsides as well.
Maybe politicians will turn into NASCAR candidates, with patches from contributing corporations sewn on their suits. We could require something like that. Call your congressman.
We could also start seeing more product placement in campaigns. "I ask for your vote. And what better way to get to the polls than in a brand new Ford Focus?"
"I'm just a regular guy, thanks to Quaker Oatmeal."
Regardless of the impact, our elected leaders need to think of some responses to this brave new world.
For starters, we've got to have better, quicker, and more easily accessible ways to monitor political giving and to tie contributions to candidates' policymaking records. It's not hard to figure out. We've got computers and the Internets.
Campaign watchdog agencies are going to need resources. I know, times are hard. But Scores of new groups are going to be created to take advantage of the new rules, and keeping track is going to get difficult.
Maybe you have ideas, opinions etc. Use your imagination. And always remember, "GE is Imagination at Work."