The greatest threat to American liberties is that, in the defense of these liberties, we allow actions that endanger the very liberties we seek to preserve.
The American government process is paralyzed in stalemate and the root cause can be traced to the evil that flows from free-flowing money in politics. In the New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10) it is written, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (Often expressed as, “The root of all evil is money.”) If Tim were living in these times he might write, “The use of money is the root of all evil power.” And, he would be right. Money – not experience, talent or ideas – is the root of all power in American politics today. Fifty years ago the iconic California Democratic Party chairman Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh became immortalized in political folklore of when he said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” If Mr. Unruh were alive today, he might suggest that, “Money is the crack cocaine of politics.”
It’s an Ill Wind That . . .
If you have been in Iowa recently you would have noted that the normal winter snow has been replaced by a blizzard of acerbic political television commercials. In fact, every four years the money spent on political ads and campaigning becomes Iowa’s second largest cash crop; just behind corn. (When you think about it, they are really both about the same) These ads are paid for by “independent” shadowy groups with patriotic-sounding names, but they are not designed to enlighten the voter on substantive issues. Rather the objective of these ads is a caustic attack on the opponents of the candidate these groups favor; while allowing the candidate to remain “innocently” above the fray. Such groups are the ventriloquists of politics. Vitriol of any scale can emit from these dummy groups and the candidate’s lips never move.
In this country there has always been a Ménage à trois between money, power and politics, but recent court rulings have added incest to the equation. These rulings have allowed seemingly independent, yet politically related parties to promiscuously comingle their efforts to achieve political power at the risk of a deformed democracy.
The most recent and damaging of these rulings was the 2010 landmark decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. In a narrow 5-to-4 ruling, the Citizens United decision wiped out virtually all barriers to the corrupting influence of money in politics by declaring it legal for individuals, corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts of funds to finance independent political campaign expenditures. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion.
Recognizing the potential risk inherent in this decision, the Supreme Court sought to hedge the influence of these corporate and union contributions by declaring that they could not contribute directly to the candidate, but only to independent organizations with no direct ties to any candidate. However well-intended this attempt to control the influence of corporate and union money in politics, it achieved the exact opposite result. This ruling has given rise to the “independent” Super PAC that is empowered to act hidden under the cloak of subterfuge, masked intents, the duplicity of non-disclosure and a lack of accountability.
Since these Super PACs are considered “independent” organizations, there is no requirement for them to disclose who or how much has been contributed or how the money is spent. The only requirement is that the candidate who stands to benefit from the Super PAC activity “has no direct contact or influence” over its actions. (Of course it is perfectly legal for their friends or former employees to form and operate such Super PACs!) In effect, political offices became the property of the highest bidders.
Certainly it was not the intent of the Supreme Court to further sully an already corrupted political campaign system. Rather, the Justices acted out of what they felt to be an even greater responsibility and that is the protection of free speech granted under the Constitution. Free speech has always been sanctified as the bedrock of American liberties; and indeed it is.
Free Speech is Laced with Shades of Gray
The Supreme Court was presented with a perplexing paradox that was created when the desire to preserve the liberty of free speech is threatened by the very exercise of free speech. The enigma faced by the Supreme Court was that the greatest danger our country faces in the defense of liberty – especially free speech – is that in defending this way of life we allow actions that endanger this way of life. Unfortunately the Supreme Court was unable to resolve this conundrum and, in fact, exacerbated it.
In its rightful, yet obsessive, desire to avoid staining the concept of free speech, the Supreme Court basically took the position that “money talks” and that using money – in virtually any form or amount – to influence political elections is an expression of protected free speech. That may have been bad enough, but the court went even further when it ruled that this right of “money talks” free speech also applies to corporations and unions. It is a ruling that allowed Mitt Romney to proudly proclaim that, “Corporations are people too;” suggesting that they had the same right to influence elections as do individuals.
The Heart of the Quandary
It is altogether right and proper to be pure and vigilant in the protection of the right of free speech, but what if the result of such vigilance leads to actions that compromise free speech for all but a few? In a world where individuals are limited to contributing $2,800 directly to a political campaign (and most lack the resources to contribute even that much), while corporations can now legally contribute untold millions; just who speaks with the loudest voice? We all know, “When money talks, politicians listen.”
By allowing the virtually unfettered flow of money from special interest groups into political campaigns and other special interest efforts, with no required accountability, disclosure or transparency, all in the technical name of protecting free speech, then the very spirit of free speech itself is endangered. The thorny issue is this:
When it comes to political campaigns and the objectives of special interest groups, how do we preserve and protect the right of free speech for all?
There is no need for a constitutional amendment or even a limit on the amount of money that can be spent by individuals, corporations or unions. What is needed and what is constitutional is for Congress to pass laws requiring full disclosure, transparency and accountability when it comes to corporations, unions and special interest groups that spend their money in political activity; this is especially true for Super PACs.
The Super PAC (and groups like them) should be required to clearly disclose their objective, i.e. to seek the election of a specific candidate. Under current law a Super PAC can run negative attack ads against any candidate with no mention of whom they seek to benefit. Super PACs should be required to list the names of individuals and corporations, along with the amount and date of the contribution. All of those associated with and/or working for a Super PAC should be required to disclose any and all past or present relationships with the candidate the PAC is supporting. And maybe most important, politicians who benefit from the Super PAC activities – even if they did not participate in the strategy or development of the material used – should be clearly identified and announce their knowledge, approval and acceptance of the activity.
Such disclosure requirements for Super PACs would neither prohibit their activity or the amount of money they collect and spend. It would preserve their right of free speech while helping to level the playing field by providing the electorate with the information necessary to make a better informed decision regarding the information presented. This is little enough to ask in an effort to preserve the right of free speech for all.
And the Moral of the Story …
If, in an effort to protect the purity of freedom of speech, the courts are going to give legal protection to the theory that “money talks,” then at least we should know who is using their money to do the talking. Free speech without the requirement of disclosure and the responsibility of accountability is a threat to the free speech rights of everyone.
It is proper to be vigilant in the protection of our liberties, but it is as equally important to be wary of actions taken in the name of preserving liberty that may endanger the very liberties we seek to protect.