If Money is Speech and Corporations are People, Is Democracy a Business?

The Fortnightly Rant for November 5, 2010, from The New Hampshire Gazette, Volume 255, No. 3, posted on Saturday, January 15, 2011.

A core principle of American democracy is that we choose our representatives in free and fair elections. Calling the 2010 mid-terms free, though, after four billion dollars were spent on them, seems to require an awfully narrow definition of that term. And since much of that money came from anonymous sources and was spent disseminating lies, it’s a stretch to say they were fair. Under these circumstances it’s no surprise that many Americans feel our campaign funding practices betray a level of hypocrisy that is unseemly for the alleged land of the free and the home of the brave.

Whenever citizens try to get new laws passed restricting campaign contributions, though, they run into a series of obstacles, the first obstacle being legislators who owe their positions to the existing system. When campaign finance reform laws get passed despite Congress’s best efforts, they have been shot down by the Supreme Court. The Roberts Court, in particular, shows no sign of retreating from its default position of one dollar, one vote.

Thanks, though, to the indisputable genius of our Founding Persons, there is a mechanism to do an end run around the Court: the Constitutional Amendment. As if to underscore that aforementioned genius, an amendment could work equally well going in either direction: it could force our practices back into line with our founding principles, or it could simply restate our principles in a way that more closely mirrors our behavior.

The Hard Way

Let’s assess the tougher route first. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) has saved us the trouble of dreaming up an Amendment to drive the corporations out of the Temple Capitol building. On February 2nd, she went right ahead and filed House Joint Resolution 74 which proposes an amendment that would explicitly permit Congress and the States to regulate the expenditure of funds by corporations engaging in political speech:

“The sovereign right of the people to govern being essential to a free democracy,” it reads, “Congress and the States may regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity … Nothing contained in this Article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.”

It’s a bold stroke aimed at the heart of the problem. We presume if it were ratified it would be impervious to judicial molestation. It suffers, though, from the weakness noted earlier — it would need to be approved by a whopping majority of our freshly-minted Congresspersons.

Path of Least Resistance

Never fear — we can still bring our Constitution and our electoral practices into alignment. In fact, once you give up any naive notions of purity, it’s suddenly easy. Since the laws that govern corporations have generally been written so as to maximize their ability to make a profit, large pools of money are available to those corporate officers who wish to influence legislation. In fact, for at least a decade or two, Congress has frequently outsourced the job of writing legislation, turning it over to corporate interests. It would be but a small additional step to allow those experienced writers of what might be called privatized legislation to take on the related task of writing a pro-corporate Amendment.

The authors of our new Amendment might as well go all the way and enshrine within it a principle that has been dear to the hearts of wealthy conservatives since the days of the Puritans: Wealth being a sign of God’s favor, Congress shall make no law limiting the use of money to influence an election.

The reference to religion might give pause to some, but considering everything else that is going on here, that is a minor quibble. On the positive side, by plainly acknowledging what has been going on for decades, we could at least stop wasting the time of our legislators, regulators, and courts, while shedding the shameful burden of hypocrisy that we now endure.

Since most of the money that gets spent in elections eventually winds up in the bank accounts of television stations, we expect our friends in the media won’t put up much of a fuss. They probably would have proposed this on their own a long time ago, if it hadn’t seemed so self-serving.

For our next trick, we’re working on another way to organize government more like a business. First task: find a way to make firing the elderly and infirm seem patriotic.

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