EDITORIAL: Money and politics

Posted 9/1/15

Speaking of campaign issues, from a campaign reform point of view, there is only one issue: money.

That is to say, money and what it does to people who want to hold public office. I’m not really …

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EDITORIAL: Money and politics


Speaking of campaign issues, from a campaign reform point of view, there is only one issue: money.

That is to say, money and what it does to people who want to hold public office. I’m not really talking about local elections, almost of all of which put volunteers into positions of intense responsibility.

But state legislators, statewide officeholders and federal legislators are a different matter. Money talks, and far too often the legislators walk that talk.

When I was a political reporter in Olympia, I came to know leaders of the state House of Representatives, especially one from Pierce County. “What role do campaign contributions play in your decisions about bills?” I asked.

He was being honest that day, and replied: “Every single one of us knows who gave us money and who did not. When we get a call from a donor, we pay attention. That donation absolutely buys access. After all, they are paying the campaign bills. Does it buy a vote? That depends. If I am voting on an issue in which one of my strong personal principles is involved, I’ll apologize to the donor but make the right vote. But if it’s something on which I don’t have a strong position based on principle, then absolutely, I’ll vote the way the donor wants.”

The Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court case, decided in 2010 on a 5-4 margin, now offers legal protection for the influence money can buy. The high court majority ruled that independent political donations from corporations, labor unions, associations and nonprofits cannot be restricted by the government, based on the logic that restricting money is the same as restricting the political speech protected by the First Amendment.

The majority ruling was based, in large part, on the court concluding that “persons” whose free speech is protected includes associations of people and thus includes corporations. The majority also decided that “the press” mentioned in the First Amendment, in its modern, corporate form, is a corporation first and “the press” second, and thus that media companies like CBS or The New York Times should have no different rights of political speech than any other corporation, such as Exxon or Monsanto.

The court's ruling freed corporations and unions to spend money both on "electioneering communications" and to push for candidates (although not to contribute directly to candidates or political parties).

Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, wrote the dissent. If only he had gained one more vote.

"A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold,” he wrote. Sound like you?

The majority ruling swept away a series of federal laws enacted by Democrats and Republicans who recognized the danger to the democracy of corporations or unions purchasing the Congress they wanted. Stevens wrote that prior to Citizens United, the court had recognized that to deny Congress the power to safeguard against "the improper use of money to influence the result [of an election] is to deny to the nation in a vital particular the power of self-protection.”

In its original conception, Stevens wrote, the First Amendment protects individual free expression and the communication of political ideas among citizens. In contrast, corporate spending on campaigns is not really political speech at all. Instead, it is a business transaction with the purpose of building corporate sales and profits by either gaining leverage on politicians so they promote or block government actions that could affect the bottom line. In addition, the vast sums that a corporation can spend, in contrast to an individual citizen’s contribution, effectively drowns out individual “speech” entirely.

Americans and their government have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the nation’s founding. In Citizens United, the court majority decided to end that.

The national movement to overrule the Supreme Court majority on this issue of political speech is called “Move to Amend.” In Washington, it’s called Initiative 735, and organizers seek 320,000 signatures to bring to the November 2016 ballot a measure to call upon the state’s congressional delegation to overturn Citizens United. They have about 121,000 signatures today. See more information on the website wamend.org.

There are many other issues that need the attention of our “We ­the People” government. But none of them will get much traction until we deal with the issue of money in politics.

— Scott Wilson


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