Tag: campaign finance

Citizens United and Corporate Money in Politics

As several of my colleagues noted yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC. While I regarded the decision as a victory for free speech, a large number of folks on the left — many of whom support free speech in other contexts — were aghast at the decision, arguing that it would vastly enhance the influence of large corporations in the political process.

Part of my disagreement with these guys is that I’m just a free speech zealot. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” and I don’t see how that language can be squared with a statute that limits the distribution of a political documentary. The best you can say, I think, is that limiting corporate influence is a “compelling state interest” sufficient to overcome the First Amendment’s ban on speech abridgment, but that’s just another way of saying that you don’t care about free speech very much.

Second, I think it’s important to remember that “corporations” encompass much more than large, for-profit businesses. They also include a wide variety of non-profit and advocacy groups, including the ACLU, the NRA, and NARAL, that are, by any reasonable definition, grassroots organizations advocating the views of large numbers of voters. Indeed, as the ACLU pointed out in its amicus brief, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) prohibited the ACLU from running ads criticizing members of Congress who voted for the awful FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Even if you think it’s appropriate for Congress to regulate the speech of Exxon-Mobil and Pfizer, I think it’s awfully hard to square the First Amendment with a law that limits the ability of NARAL or the NRA to advocate for its members’ views.

But more fundamentally, I don’t buy the idea that limiting corruption is a state interest sufficiently compelling to overcome the First Amendment interest in free speech. I think supporters of BCRA misunderstand how corporations wield influence and dramatically overestimate the power of television advertisements. It’s true, of course, that a corporation prepared to spend $1 million on ads criticizing a particular legislator will get that legislator’s attention. But there’s nothing unique about this. It can also get his attention by hiring a lobbying firm that employs a former staffer. It can get his attention by arranging $100,000 in bundled contributions from executives, clients, and friends of the company. It can get his attention by creating astroturf organizations. And there are probably lots of other mechanisms I haven’t thought of.

The key difference between independent expenditures and the other mechanisms is that independent expenditures are the most open and transparent. To run an effective “issue ad,” a corporation has to make an argument that is persuasive to voters. I don’t want to sugar coat the situation; sometimes independent expenditures finance ads that are sleazy and misleading. But given a choice between corporations spending their money on ads about how Senator Smith hates America or spending their money on K Street, I’ll take the ads, because at least voters still get the final decision.

Moreover, I think we’re moving toward a world in which traditional high-dollar advertising campaigns will become increasingly ineffective. One smart liberal compares the post-Citizens United world to a debate in which “you get 10 seconds to make your case. I’ll take an hour.” This description of the world had a certain plausibility when most people got their news from newspapers and television — media characterized by severe, technologically imposed bottlenecks. These bottlenecks meant that those willing to spend more money could get a significantly bigger soapbox.

This is a lot less true online where users have practically unlimited choices. The web is littered with lavishly funded corporate propaganda that gets a fraction of the traffic of grassroots blogs like Boing Boing. When people have lots of choices, they aren’t likely to stick around very long at a site that dishes up corporate talking points. So while deep pockets will always be an asset in politics, they won’t give 21st century corporations the huge advantages they gave to 20th century corporations.

So I’m not thrilled at the idea of Fortune 500 companies spending a ton of money on bogus “issue ads.” But I think the dangers of such ads are frequently exaggerated. I’m far more worried about preserving the right of organizations like the ACLU to spread their message. And I don’t see any plausible way to stop the former without seriously restricting the latter. So I’m glad to see the Supreme Court take the words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law” — literally.

Democracy Will Survive Citizens United

At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.

My comment:

The ink is barely dry on today’s Citizens United opinion, and the hysteria has already begun.  Set aside the misunderstandings we’re seeing in some of the comments here at the Arena – corporations still cannot, for example, contribute directly to campaigns – even some of those who understand the law and this decision would have us believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end.  Thus, the inimitable Rick Hasen, whose knowledge of these issues is second to none, tells us that “today’s Supreme Court opinion marks a very bad day for American democracy.”  And attorneys at NYU’s Brennan Center, which made its reputation promoting campaign finance “reform,” head up their post with this: “After the Flood: How to Save Democracy Post Citizens United.”  One imagines the Dark Ages just beyond the gloaming.
 
Over on the Hill, meanwhile, Senator Russ Feingold, who’s having a bad day in what must for him be a bad week, promises darkly, “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”
 
Relax.  Half of our states, states like Virginia, have minimal campaign finance laws, and there’s no more corruption in those states than in states that strictly regulate.  And that’s because the real reason we have this campaign finance law is not, and never has been, to prevent corruption.  The dirty little secret – the real impetus for this law – in incumbency protection.  How else to explain the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment, which the Court struck down in 2008.  That little gem in the McCain-Feingold “reform” package exempted candidates (read: incumbents) from the law’s strictures if they were running against a self-financed “millionaire,” who could not be prohibited from spending his own money campaigning.  Thus, the nominal rationale for the incomprehensible edifice we call “campaign finance law” – to prohibit corruption – suddenly disappeared if you were running against a millionaire.  Well, the Court, fortunately, saw right through that.  And a majority on the Court saw the light in today’s decision, too.  The First Amendment is not a “loophole.”  It’s the very foundation of our democracy, and we are the stronger today for this decision.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Citizens United decision is barely out, and incumbent members of Congress are vowing to restore restrictions on political speech.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) said: “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”

In the House of Representatives, Robert Brady, Chairman of the House Administration Committee - the panel responsible for campaign finance regulations - sent out an email that said: “I will be working directly with my colleagues, the Leadership and the White House to study the Court’s decision and to put together a timeline for legislative action that ensures the Court’s decision will not define the ways elections are conducted in 2010.”

It is difficult to see how Feingold, Brady and other members of Congress will be able to get around the clear and certain language of the Citizens United decision. But they will try. Nothing worries members more than free and critical speech, especially when the upcoming election already looks really bad for incumbents.

Think Tanks Should Be Able to Opine on Public Policy Without Running Afoul of Campaign Finance Regulations

In 2005, political opponents filed a complaint against the Independence Institute for not complying with the Colorado constitution and other campaign finance regulations when it spoke against a state ballot initiative. These regulations require, among other things, disclosure of the identity of anyone who has donated more than $20 to a cause and imposes registration and contribution limits on groups who have major interests in ballot issues.

The Independence Institute challenged the constitutionality of Colorado’s state ballot issue requirements and the issue is petitioning the Supreme Court for certiorari in Independence Institute v. Buescher. Cato has filed an amicus brief, in cooperation with Wyoming Liberty Group, the Center for Competitive Politics, the Sam Adams Alliance, the Montana Policy Institute, and the Goldwater Institute in support of the Independence Institute. We argue that Colorado’s ballot campaign regulations run roughshod over constitutional protections for political speech and association, which lie at the very heart of the First Amendment—particularly for think tanks and other organizations that regularly comment on public policy matters. Loss of these First Amendment protections will chill think tanks’ future attempts to educate the public about issues that are the subject of ballot campaigns. The Court should thus review this case and ensure that citizens maintain their associational rights—including the right to remain anonymous when donating to non-profits—and associations their freedom of expression.

You can download the entire brief here. A special thanks to Cato Legal Associate Travis Cushman for his assistance on this brief.

A New Court Term: Big Cases, Questions About the New Justice

Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term.  The Court already heard one argument – in the Citizens United campaign finance case – but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn’t really count.

In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front-loaded its caseload – with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already.  Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:

  • the application of the Second Amendment to state gun regulations;
  • First Amendment challenges to national park monuments and a statute criminalizing the depiction of animal cruelty;
  • an Eighth Amendment challenge to life sentences for juveniles; a potential revisiting of Miranda rights;
  • federalism concerns over legislation regarding the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons;
  • a separation-of-powers dispute concerning the agency enforcing Sarbanes-Oxley;
  • judicial takings of beachfront property; and
  • notably in these times of increasing government control over the economy, the “reasonableness” of mutual fund managers’ compensation.

Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra-close attention.

Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice – and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court.  While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity.  Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent – and the first term is not necessarily indicative.

Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right.  We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument – questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights – so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.

In short, it’s the first day of school and I’m excited.

Under Current Law, Can the Government Ban Books?

The Citizens United case currently before the Supreme Court may radically reshape campaign finance law for years to come. Former FEC commissioner Bradley A. Smith spoke at a forum on the case a day before the rehearing before the high court.

According to Smith, who is also the founder of the Center for Competitive Politics,  under current law, the government does have the power to ban certain books  if those books are published by a corporation, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 1990.

Watch:

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.