Editorial: Awash in Money

Posted January 26, 2010 at 4:14pm

We have no illusions about the current campaign finance system: It stinks. Political races are now awash in an obscene amount of money — most of which is spent on attack ads that do nothing to educate the voters or elevate the level of political discourse.

Money has become “the first primary— in most elections, weeding out candidates well before voters are paying attention. Even races with good candidates are sullied by the tone and frequency of their ads. And laudable as the goals of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were, it hasn’t really worked. The law did nothing to diminish the influence of money in politics, and it created loopholes that have enabled shadowy groups to influence races with little trace of where their money is coming from.

But to borrow the sentiments of Winston Churchill when he said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,— as bad as the current finance laws are, they were made worse by the Supreme Court’s decision last week in the Citizens United case, which loosens restrictions on corporate spending in political and legislative lobbying campaigns.

There’s a reason corporations have been banned from directly giving money to federal campaigns for the past century — because allowing them, and labor unions, unlimited opportunities to influence campaigns is a bad idea. It’s not as if corporations and associations and unions don’t already have an opportunity to give money to candidates and causes. That’s what political action committees are for.

The Citizens United decision left standing the ban on direct corporate contributions to campaigns, but it will allow special interests to continue running ads about a race through Election Day, striking down limits on when and how they can advertise.

We are not arguing for outcome-based decision-making from the court; as a newspaper, we cherish freedom of speech as much as anyone, and accept all that it entails. But for the high court to say that limitations on corporate giving have denied these entities their full freedom of speech troubles us, because it almost certainly distorts the intentions of the Founding Fathers — to the benefit of the privileged. Corporations aren’t people deserving full First Amendment rights. They already have ample opportunities to express themselves in the media and marketplace of ideas.

And it is that very prospect of the rich getting richer — or, in a political context, spending more — that makes the court ruling so disturbing. Look for political airtime to be dominated even more than it is now by the interests that are most able to afford it. How will voters react then?

Democrats are talking about offering legislation to mitigate the effects of the court ruling. We look forward to seeing what they propose. We would recommend, at a minimum, full and immediate disclosure of ad buys, with euphemistically named coalitions required to name the sources of their income. And we think that corporations need to inform their stockholders (and unions should inform their dues-paying members) every time their management makes a campaign expenditure.

Inevitably, bills calling for public financing of Congressional races will get an airing. We’re not prepared to say it’s an idea whose time has come — but all arguments for curtailing the influence of money on campaigns are definitely welcome.