Tag Archives: Buckley v. Valeo

Money Matters

When the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo and declared, in essence, that money equaled speech, I agreed. I have always been a free-speech purist, and it seemed reasonable to me that the freedom to express my opinion should include my freedom to spend my money supporting issues and candidates with whom I agreed.

I was wrong. The Court was wrong. Money is not speech, and corporations are not “people.”

Citizens United should have been a predictable consequence of Buckley. Recent experience teaches us that reasonable restrictions on political spending and insistence on full disclosure are absolutely essential to the democratic process.

I do not make the argument that the candidate with the most money will always win an election. There are plenty of examples to the contrary, and lots of reasons besides financial ones why elections are won or lost. That said, in order to be viable, candidates need enough money to compete, to get their message out. Money more often than not makes the crucial difference.

Here in central Indiana, the airwaves are already full of gauzy, saccharine 30-second spots introducing us to a new and improved version of Mike Pence. The real Pence polls high negatives. He has a legislative record that is–to  be kind about it–undistinguished, and a hard-right self-righteousness that is off-putting. He is also clearly favored to win the gubernatorial race, for two reasons: he will have lots and lots of money, courtesy of many of the same plutocrats who supported Scott Walker; and his opponent, who has shown an unfortunate propensity for unforced political errors, has thus far not raised nearly enough.

If Gregg continues his lackluster fundraising, Pence will continue to dominate the airwaves, airbrushing his own persona and redefining Gregg’s. By the time November rolls around, voters will choose between two caricatures bearing very little resemblance to the flesh-and-blood individuals upon whom they are based.

This situation is not unique to Indiana. Thanks to our conflation of a right to spend unlimited sums of money with a right to freedom of expression, we have turned campaigns into arms races, where a candidate’s ability to ingratiate himself with big-money donors outweighs any other strengths he may bring to the table. Even good candidates find themselves compelled to spend untold hours fundraising, at the expense of the sorts of “retail” politics in which voters have unmediated contact with candidates for office.

Given enough money and a really good media operation, Lady Gaga could run for office as a clone of Mother Teresa. It wouldn’t be any more of a stretch than Mike Pence pretending to be someone who cares more about jobs and the economy than about demonizing gays and de-funding Planned Parenthood.

Houston, we have a problem.

Two Wrongs, Eroding Rights

January 21st was the 2-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. 

The anniversary was marked with a number of protests, and an even larger number of news articles and blog posts documenting the dramatic growth of political “Super Pacs” and other unaccountable third-party political actors in the wake of that decision.  We have seen an almost unimaginable amount of money being spent to influence–okay, buy–elections.

As a guest blogger for the American Constitution Society recently wrote,  “people are expressing outrage about the corrosive effect of big money in politics, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

This outrage is well founded –  in a report Public Citizen published one year after the Court’s disastrous decision – we found that spending by outside groups jumped to nearly $300 million in the 2010 election cycle, from just $68.9 million in 2006.  The donors for nearly half of this independent money spent remain undisclosed. And, that’s just a taste of what’s to come.  The influx of independent expenditures in allowed by Citizens United will bump up election campaign spending to record levels in 2012; by some accounts to as much as $8 billion, dwarfing previous records.

We want to get big money out of politics, but do that, you have to engage the very system that is weakened and undermined by that money. The deck seems stacked.  How does an ordinary person find a way to make that change happen?”

The entire post is worth reading, and the author concludes–as have many others–that we need a constitutional amendment that would overturn the decision and confirm that corporations are not people.

I agree that such an amendment is warranted, if incredibly difficult to pass. But as a retired Judge told me several months ago when we were discussing the case, the real travesty was the earlier decision in Buckley v. Valeo, in which the Court equated money with speech. That was the decision that made Citizens United possible.

We all know that wealthier people have more clout in every society; they always have and probably always will. Wealth buys privileges–it allows people to get better educations, join organizations that are influential, have more leisure, hire lobbyists, and access a wide variety of other social “megaphones” that allow them to influence others. That’s just reality–an inescapable consequence of free speech in a market economy, and in my view, an acceptable if regrettable trade-off.

But Buckley and Citizens United  vastly increase the power of the rich at the expense of everyone else. Rather than helping to level the playing field by upholding laws that would have moderated political advantage, those decisions dramatically increased the disparity.

If money is speech, and corporations are people, the 1% will always own the political process.