Saturday, May 14, 2011

Best Government Money Can Buy?

I’ve been meaning to write about one of the most underreported and far reaching political events since President Theodore Roosevelt’s Trust busting days at the turn of the century (no, the last century as in 19th). One of my pet peeves is the “corporatization” of the American political system. I believe business has the right to do what it does, namely to provide a product or service, and make a decent profit for the owners and/or shareholders. I also believe we, the huddled masses, have the right to collectively bargain for a decent wage. I believe too that we have the right to individually bargain for a decent wage based on the worth we add to the company.

Corporations are considered, in the eyes of the legal system, to share many of the same “rights” that ordinary individuals have. They are, however, artificially created entities (think of them as corporate “Frankensteins”). However, they have been restricted from directly contribute money to candidates. Instead, they had to rely on indirect or obscure means such as through lobbyists, PACs, etc to influence policy. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also know as the McCain-Feingold Act further restricted their influence. This law, challenged in the Supreme Court, revolved around the documentary Hillary: The Movie which was produced by the conservative Citizens United. Under the McCain-Feingold law, a federal court in Washington D.C. ruled that Citizens United would be barred from advertising its film.

During the oral argument, the government argued that under existing precedents, it had the power under the Constitution to prohibit the publication of books and/or movies made or sold by corporations or unions. In short, corporations (and unions) were barred from direct contributions of campaigns. The case was re-argued on September 9. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court overturned the provision by 5 to 4 of McCain-Feingold barring corporations and unions from paying for political ads made independently of candidate campaigns. Now, they were back in the game!

Now, you may or may not realize this, but there are currently over 24,000 lobbyists in Washington DC alone. For every $1.00 they spent on legislators, they expect to save approximately $6.00 in taxes. Nice deal if you ask me. While the court’s ruling lessens (ever so slightly) the direct influence of lobbyists, it makes corporations immensely more powerful. The precept that financial contributions are an “expression of the free speech” and are protected by the First Amendment has often espoused by Kentucky’s very own senior senator, Mitch McConnell, who also opposed provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill. I have to disagree, here’s why.

You and I are limited in terms of maximum allowable contributions under existing campaign finance laws, as well as by our income, in expressing our “free speech” while corporations like Exxon for instance are, well, let’s just say that their “free speech” is substantially more persuasive yours. Let’s take a couple other examples. What if I work for a corporation which makes contributions to certain candidates I oppose? Should they be allowed to use money; profit made off my labor to so? What about the stockholder? Should corporations use money, which could be paid out as dividends or reinvested and spend it on politicians whose policies I may or may not agreed with?

How about unions? I am a strong supporter of organized labor and any other organization which promotes the wellbeing of working men and women. However, what about unions or similar groups which automatically deduct money from members via dues, etc. and pool in order to donate to specific candidates and/or a particular political party (normally Democrat)? If I happen to dislike that candidate or party, I am, in effect, forced to make a second “contribution” to support that individual or political party of my choice. My argument here is that I don’t like the idea of money being taken from me, directly or indirectly, without my expressed consent. Call it a “sovereign individual” issue if you will. I believe in individual choice when it comes to giving money.

But again, we have the issue of “value” to even this type of “freedom of expression”. Simply put, corporations can donate far more than unions and certainly more than individuals. And again, its money derived from the efforts of its employees. I didn’t hire on to support my company’s political agenda.

In doing some research for this article, I found that I am definitely in the minority. According to a Gallup Poll conducted on January 20, 2010, 57% of Americans regard campaign contributions as a form of free speech, and agreed that the same rules applied to individuals should apply to corporations and PACs (55% to 39% with 6% having no opinion). When broken down along party lines, 62% of Democrats felt contributions were protected under the First Amendment, as did 64% of Republicans. Interestingly, Independents, who now constitute the largest voting block, were nearly split with 48% agreeing with 44% disagreeing.

Concerning contribution limits, 52% of Americans felt that we need to cap the amount money donated. Again, along party lines, 49% of Democrats agreed as did 53% of Independents while only 49% of Republicans did. Regarding individual contributions, 61% on those surveyed thought contributions by individuals should be limited while 76% felt corporations (and unions) should be capped.

The poll seems to suggest, at least to me, that Americans recognize that giving money to whoever you want to is a form of free speech and except that corporations and unions should have the same right, though with greater restrictions. To me, this expresses our sense of fair play and the realization that to in order to maintain a level playing field, donations by businesses, PACs, unions, and so forth have to be capped lower.

I have to agree with a January 21, 2011 New York Times editorial calling the decision a “blow to democracy”. With elections, at practically every level, nearly out of the reach of the average citizen-candidate, we are no longer a nation of “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Obama is already gearing up for the first ever $1 billion dollar president election. I find that obscene. We quite literally now have the best government money can buy, or to put it another way, we now have the government we deserve since the American People have largely been asleep at the wheel until recently (thank you Tea Party) while our government has been hijacked and our Constitution distorted. I believe Big Business already has far too much control in Washington, our state capitals, and even in our city halls. The time has come for a change. We need term limits and we need serious campaign finance reform.

Gall Poll Results:

New York Times Article:

Contributors to Barack Obama:

Contributors to John McCain:

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