Call me crazy! Last Sunday I should have joined family and friends at a Super Bowl party and gotten into the spirit of the game. Instead I spent the day reading the recent Supreme Court ruling which states that – when it comes to campaign finance reform – there is no distinction between people and corporations.
The decision two weeks ago in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission overturned a ban (in existence for over 100 years) prohibiting corporations and unions from making “independent expenditures.”
The modest good news is that the ruling does not pose an immediate threat to legislation just passed in Illinois limiting contributions from individuals to political candidates.
The very bad news is that the ruling threatens the integrity of our democracy.
Our recent progress in Illinois is not immediately challenged because of the legal distinction between “individual contributions” and “independent expenditures.”
The former is what you and I, as individuals, can contribute directly to a candidate. The latter is the money that a corporation or union can spend – ostensibly at arm’s length – for a particular campaign.
But the Court’s judgment means that corporation and unions can now dig into their often vast treasuries to run ads for candidates who will serve their interests, or against those who might oppose them. It tilts the democratic playing field in favor of the most powerful economic interests – right now one might even say ‘predators’ – in our society.
How can it be argued that there is no distinction between corporations and – in the language of the court – “natural persons?”
In his minority brief, Justice Stevens had no trouble seeing the difference. “Corporations,” he wrote, “are uniquely equipped to seek laws that favor their owners, not simply because they have a lot of money, but because of their legal and organizational structure….(They) help… facilitate the activities of human beings… but they are not themselves members of ‘We the People” by whom and for whom our constitution was established.”
But speaking for the majority, Justice Kennedy offered the following blanket statement: “Speech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker all too often are simply a means to control content.” There is no basis, in other words, on which to make distinctions, no matter how compelling, in determining how to apply the First Amendment on behalf of freedom of speech.
But aren’t there times when it is necessary to regulate that which one wishes to preserve? Surely this is one of the lessons of the 1930’s. And, today, should we not be seeking a regulatory structure of financial institutions that might have helped us to avoid the current great recession?
Similarly, there is a degree of regulation that is, and always will be, essential if we are to be effective stewards of democracy. Without impugning their political or ideological bias, this is what Justice Kennedy and the rest of the majority in Citizens United simply do not get.
In Illinois, we must continue to fight for meaningful campaign finance reform. Our recent success in limiting campaign contributions does not include transfer of funds from party leaders in general elections. Legislation has just been introduced to close this large loophole. PCG will be supporting a bill to this end and will assist you in doing so in the next several weeks.
Faced with a Supreme Court that sees no difference between corporations and people, we must redouble our efforts to preserve the ideals that caused the Founders of our nation to believe that “freedom of speech” was a worthwhile goal in the first place.