Monday, January 25, 2010

The Level Playing Field

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the Supreme Court ruling in the "Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission" case. By a margin of 5-4, the court decided that provisions that were part of the McCain-Feingold Act were a violation of free speech, and therefore Unconstitutional. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the president responded negatively to the ruling, stating that it "gave a green light to a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics," particularly "big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies and the other powerful interests" that "drown out the voices of everyday Americans." 

Perhaps he is right that every one of those groups will take advantage of relaxing regulation on political contributions in the upcoming election cycles. On the other hand, he appears to have ignored some other groups that likewise find it worthwhile to contribute to politics. No one can deny the significant amount of money spent by unions in this country to influence government. SEIU contributed significantly to the 2008 Obama campaign and its president Andy Stern is quoted in a Las Vegas Sun article as saying that they contributed some $60.7 million to the Obama campaign. 

Without taking the time to document every one of them, I would likewise feel safe in saying that significant contributions to campaigns and politicians were made by most Unions during the last election cycle. Many then suggest that corporations put such contributions up to a vote of the stockholders, obtaining their permission before supporting a person or program. 

Should then not similar rules apply to the contributions of their labor counterparts, with members rather than union management deciding who or what gets the money and how much? Some will make the case that the 5-4 majority of this decision was split down partisan lines, with justices appointed by Republican presidents supporting the ruling and those appointed by Democratic presidents dissenting. I would say in turn that this should be considered small surprise. 

I would in fact expect that judges appointed by more conservative (and therefore probably Republican) presidents should take a more constructionist view of the Constitution and Bill of Rights than their more liberal counterparts, who might share the view of many progressive thinkers that the Constitution is a living document that should answer more to the times than the language. 

None of this even touches on the ability of the print media, TV, and movies attempting to influence policy through the non-monetary means of positive or negative portrayals of political offices, plot premises that are based on the concept of man-made global disasters, or "documentaries" on subjects that carry the political prejudice of the director, the network, or the movie studio. Where is the hue and cry over legislation to monitor and regulate this potential abuse of freedom of speech?

The truth of the matter is that even with the McCain-Feingold legislation, there was still plenty of money in politics. The Obama Campaign spent more than the Bush and Kerry campaigns combined in the previous election cycle, and since the President did not accept matching government funds, he was not obligated to share contributor lists or amounts in the same way as his competitor was with us. Ignored, and far more important than the influence these groups have in campaign finance however, is what they have in crafting legislation. 

Groups on the left and the right spend far more money attempting to influence (or even write) any legislation that might affect them than they do on candidates. Lawyers keep tort reform from entering the health care discussion, environmental groups get potential sources of oil protected as national parks, and the recent negotiations over Cadillac health care plans that would exempt unions until 2017 are but the latest example of the pressure that unions can bring to bear on legislators. 

Meanwhile agribusiness fights to keep farm subsidies and bio fuel legislation in place, and banks and Wall Street fight to keep their rights to legal gambling with government backed funds. No large organization is innocent of playing the system and many survive only by a combination of legislator coercion and nursing at the government teat. 

It has long been understood that money is speech in this country when it comes to elections. It appears that at least five members of the Supreme Court acknowledge that fact and understand that this freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. It also appears that they likewise understand that if the document on which this country's government is to mean anything, that allowing all sides to participate on an equal footing in the process is little more than leveling the playing field.

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