Well, that was excruciating.
The Senate Judiciary Committee just wrapped up a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn a series of Supreme Court rulings, such as Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC, which have drastically increased the influence of money in American politics. Some of the most common arguments against efforts to reign in money in politics were on proud display at today’s hearing, so now seems as good a time as any to get debunking.
1. UNPOPULAR graduation speakers are a slippery slope to tyranny
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa kicked things off by decrying the recent resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and the withdrawal of IMF chief Christine Lagarde as Smith College’s commencement speaker. “Too many people are impatient, and will not listen, debate and persuade,” said Sen. Grassley. “Instead, they want to punish, intimidate, and silence those with whom they disagree.” He went on to explain that the proposed amendment was “cut from the same cloth,” and also added that “freedom of speech is threatened as it has not been in many decades.”
Let’s leave aside for a moment that neither case cited by Sen. Grassley actually involved the government infringing on free speech rights in any way (Mozilla is a private company, and Smith a private college). What’s particularly perplexing is that both of the examples Sen. Grassley chose to illustrate the demise of listening, debate, and persuasion involved plenty of listening, debate, and persuasion.
Both Eich and Lagarde were open about their beliefs. Their constituencies (in these particular instances) disagreed with those beliefs, and held them to account. That’s one of the hallmarks of a free society: If a public figure takes a position that a majority of the people finds distasteful, the people have a peaceful means of making their voices heard in order to enact change. Mozilla’s customers and Smith’s students made a persuasive case, and the higher-ups listened.
To hear Grassley tell it, you’d think a tiny handful of angry students at Smith College swooped in with a secret, multimillion dollar ad buy to viciously smear Lagarde’s reputation. Gee, I wonder what that would look like…
2. “You’re just trying to shut down the people you disagree with!”
See also: “You’re just jealous because we have more money than you do!”
In fairness, almost every modern politician is a hypocrite to some degree when it comes to talking about money in politics. Democrats love to vilify conservative mega donors like the Koch brothers and Art Pope, but are conveniently silent on the influence of major liberal funders like George Soros and Tom Steyer, and vice-versa for Republicans.
But here’s the thing: There’s not a single reform proposal out there that specifically targets the financial backing of one party over the other. By it’s very nature, any plan to combat money in politics has to be “content neutral” in order to work. As University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone explains:
[Campaign finance laws] apply without regard to whether an individual is a Republican or a Democrat, whether he supports the Affordable Care Act or opposes it, whether she is pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, whether he endorses or condemns the right to abortion … Such laws restrict speech without regard to the message conveyed.
Examples of such laws are regulations prohibiting anyone to use loudspeakers in residential neighborhoods after 8:00 in the evening or to parade naked down a public street.
In other words: The whole point of reform is to allow ideas to stand on their own merits by stripping the money out of the equation — Regardless of who’s spending it.
3. getting money out of politics is a fringe, left-wing cause
One could be forgiven for thinking that the money in politics debate falls strictly along partisan lines, especially after today’s hearing. After all, the only senators arguing for the proposed amendment were Democrats, and the only ones arguing against were Republicans. Business as usual, right?
For all of the partisan rhetoric on display today, the American people are shockingly unified when it comes to money in politics. The numbers here are mind-boggling:
- A 2011 CNN Opinion Research Poll found that 86% of Americans think elected officials are most strongly influenced by the pressure they receive from campaign contributors.
- A 2012 Gallup Poll found that 87% of Americans believe that the president should make tackling corruption in the federal government a top priority — ahead of fighting terrorism, reducing the deficit, and preserving Social Security and Medicare.
- A 2012 Associated Press Poll found that 83% of Americans — including 81% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats — Believe that “there should be limits on the amount of money corporations, unions, and other organizations can contribute to outside organizations trying to influence campaigns for president, Senate, and U.S. House.”
We could go on and on, but at the risk of getting redundant we’ll just leave it at this: Politicians will do everything in their power to make this issue a divisive, partisan talking point. But it doesn’t have to be.
4. MORE Money in politics = more competitive elections… Somehow
Another favorite argument of reform opponents: Limits on money in politics would make it harder for outsiders to spend big bucks and upend the status quo. By that logic, elections should be more competitive than ever. In fact, given that campaign costs and outside spending levels have exploded in recent years, we should be living in a golden age of political competition.
And yet, as the Washington Post reports:
Only 30 House races have any right to be called a “race” of any sort this year. That’s 30 out of 435. That’s 6.8 percent of the entire House.
… Once a candidate wins a House race, he or she almost always has fundraising and name ID advantages over any person who decides to run against them.
Perhaps that fact that the candidate who spends the most money wins 90% of the time has something to do with it.
All four of these arguments have one thing in common: They hinge on the flawed idea that allowing money to flood politics is a matter of preserving individual rights. So, who are these poor, misunderstood souls whose political speech rights are under assault by a power-mad government?
In the 2012 election cycle, 216 people — that’s .00007 percent of the population — contributed over $560 million to super PACs alone, which is more than one and a half times the amount of all outside spending in the 2008 election cycle combined. Put another way, 216 people spent nearly 11,000 times the amount an average family of four makes in an entire year on vapid attack ads produced by nebulous groups with names like “Americans for a More American America.”
Call me an idealist, but I think it’s high time we focus on the free speech rights of the other 99.99993% of the population instead.