Last month, Joe Albanese, a research fellow at the Institute for Free Speech, wrote in these pages that House Bill 1524 is an attack on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, i.e. free speech (Monitor Forum, Feb. 16).
I thank Albanese for bringing HB 1524 to the public’s attention. In its own flawed way it addresses two issues that undermine our democracy and alarm a great majority of voters: big money in politics and gerrymandering.
Regarding big money in politics, supporters of this bill seek to undo the effect of the activist U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which declared corporations to be people and money to be free speech. The result of this decision has been the unleashing of torrents of money into politics with little transparency or accountability. It has given wealthy interests a bullhorn to exercise their “free speech” (often without us knowing who is “speaking”) while the rest of us have been reduced to whispers.
Gerrymandering refers to the redrawing of voting district boundaries (sometimes in contorted ways) for political advantage by the party that carries the vote in a census year (ends in a zero). The idea is to create as many uncontestable districts as possible for your party. With advances in technology this can now be done with surgical precision, as you have heard in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It allows politicians to choose voters rather than voters to choose politicians.
Albanese’s contention is that the Citizens United decision is, in fact, correct – that money in politics is free speech and therefore should be protected. People and organizations should have the right to support candidates of their choosing and advocate for policies through lobbying their representatives. Efforts to control this flow of money would undermine – or even threaten – citizen participation in the political process.
The moment one equates money with free speech, however, shouldn’t it meet the standards of free speech in the public square? Doesn’t free speech require that we know who the speaker is? This is called transparency and accountability. If supporting a candidate with money is free speech, then shouldn’t we know who the donors are? Shouldn’t we know who’s behind the proliferation of ads during the campaign season as well – if money spent this way is free speech?
The American people need to know who’s “talking.” Sometimes it’s not easy to find out: even corporate shareholders have found it difficult to get an accounting from their companies on their political spending and lobbying.
This is especially true with big donors because, at the very least, they can expect to have the ear of the candidate receiving the donation. At worst they can influence votes, the writing of bills and how those bills proceed. How can we establish that a quid pro quo has occurred – i.e. corruption – if there is no transparency?
Freedom of speech is a right not without consequences or responsibilities. In the public square, others have the right to disagree with you, criticize you and question your motives. We have a free press to investigate truthfulness and corruption and a government to assure that laws are not broken. It’s the public’s job, in turn, to hold the press and government accountable.
Then there’s dark money, “a term that describes funds given to nonprofit organizations – primarily 501(c)(4) (social welfare) and 501(c)(6) (trade association) groups – that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and spend funds to influence elections, but are not required to disclose their donors” (Wikipedia).
In turn, these nonprofits can give their money to Super PACs, which can spend it without disclosing those nonprofit donors. This kind of spending, largely for ads on social media, radio and TV as well as mailers, has exploded over the last two election cycles. The Russians, we have learned, have exploited this venue, which opens the possibility of even darker money being spent by American interests without our knowledge. Google, Twitter and Facebook clearly don’t pay close attention to their own platforms.
Who can doubt that the tax reform bill wasn’t a big, wet kiss to wealthy interests who helped elect the candidates of their choosing. Koch Industries, for instance, will be receiving a million dollars in the tax windfall; the Koch brothers have already pledged $400,000 to make sure those votes are rewarded (though they would use different wording).
Albanese also says that corruption is hard to define and difficult to prove. But we know what it looks like.
In 2008 it was clear that Wall Street had defrauded the American people on a massive scale, precipitating a huge recession. Nobody of substance was ever convicted of a crime, and the fines that were levied were trivial compared to Wall Street wealth. Profits were privatized, and losses socialized; Wall Street was bailed out, and Main Street left to itself.
Ten years later the protections put in place are being rolled back, and regulations are being swept away. Banks are still too big to fail. One random factoid: In the past year, members of the House Financial Services Committee received $10 million in contributions from banks, financial institutions, insurance companies and accounting firms – the tip of the iceberg.
The NRA funds many campaigns of candidates who support their pro-gun agenda and has a huge war chest to work against candidates who don’t. When a Sandy Hook, Las Vegas or Florida happens, it flexes its muscles, engages its members and strangles gun control legislation. Every candidate knows how powerful an effect their money has on elections. The result: inaction.
Is there an unhealthy imbalance of money in politics?
1) In 2012, fewer than 200 Americans – a miniscule 0.000063 percent of the population – contributed 80 percent of all Super PAC donations.
2) Since Citizens United, corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political attack ads at the local, state and national levels.
3) Wall Street lobbyists spent $1 million in one day to try to keep the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from getting off the ground. The fiduciary rule has yet to be put into effect.
4) In 2014, the Koch Brothers spent more money in one state, North Carolina, than all Democratic groups combined.
The perception on Main Street is that wealthy interests “own” our government – government by the rich for the rich – and with good reason. There are currently several versions of amendments to the U.S. Constitution to undo the damage done by Citizens United, which severely restricts the government’s ability to regulate money as a corrupting influence in politics. Wealthy interest will do anything to stop them. Republican leadership in both Houses obviously like the status quo because they will not move on any of these amendments – ditto on the state level – unless we the people pressure them to.
Until that happens, campaign finance reform is DOA. Have you surrendered your country to wealthy interests and to partisan politics (e.g gerrymandering)? We can start to take it back by asking our candidates about their inaction and then send a message in November.
(Allan MacDonald lives in New London.)