This past January marked 7 years since the decision handed down by the SCOTUS in a case that has riled many, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The case, brought over the airing of a film critical of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, challenged campaign finance law provisions under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that regulated political speech on the part of certain corporations (some, such as certain media groups, were exempt). The court struck down such provisions as being unconstitutional under the First Amendment, though provisions dealing with public disclosure of sponsors and direct contributions were left alone. The case has received much consternation on the part of some, including liberals who call openly for the case to be overturned. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made such an aim a part of their respective campaigns. A common complaint is that the case allows a vast influx of money into elections and that such a thing has allowed a hollowing or danger to democratic expression. Is such a thing true?
Of course, those in the know about Citizens United understand that the case had more to do with the production of broadcasts relating to candidates close to the election (in this case, “Hillary the Movie”…I guess we can see why the Democratic nominee had her own personal reasons for pushing to overturn the ruling) then merely campaign contributions. Just as Citizens United published their campaign video against Hillary Clinton which the Federal Election Commission would take to court, Michael Moore published a film against Donald Trump during this past election cycle. That likely wouldn’t have been possible had the ruling gone differently (what is hardly ever mentioned is that the Deputy Solicitor General in the Citizens United case tried to make the argument that the federal government had the lawful power to ban books if they mentioned the name of a candidate for federal office, and were published in the run-up to the federal election in which that candidate was competing. Yeah…book banning…).
While some politicians, particularly incumbents, decry the growth in anonymous electoral contributions (with some alleged totals being at about $300 million), it isn’t clear why this is necessarily a bad thing. Such totals are at, around, or lower than some of the biggest box office draws or even investments in various projects across the country. If elections are indeed as important as advertised, it isn’t clear why they wouldn’t be as worthy of such levels of investment as a movie. Also, contrary to conventional belief, such opening of campaign finance has actually helped challengers and upstarts such as Bernie Sanders or Rand Paul among others to achieve more presence…which has helped electoral campaigns become more competitive. Campaign finance regulations in fact made such campaigning drives more difficult for challengers and upstarts as they require more money and donations in order to compete with incumbents, who already have an established level of support and tend to know the ins-and-outs of the laws on the books better than their rivals do. One need only look at the very high levels of incumbent re-election rates over the years to see how so-called “balancing” regulations have been a miserable failure of allowing other voices to be heard and enter office. If anything, they have provided much aid to establishment politicians.
Also, despite the fear that heavy levels of campaign spending would buy public offices, that isn’t necessarily true. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton outspent their opponents heavily in 2016, yet still lost. Bernie Sanders’s aid from SuperPAC money led him to be able to spend more in support of his candidacy than any of his Democrat rivals…and probably kept him in the race longer…and yet he still lost. Guess there is more to electoral success than just the supposed “evil” dollar. After a recent special election in Georgia, Jon Ossoff decried the issue of money in politics, yet he actually outspent his Republican opponent 6 to 1. He still lost the election by thousands of votes. Ultimately, the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding which private voices should be drowned out in order to decide which others should be propped up (again, there is the First Amendment of course)…especially when the action involved is unnecessary and doesn’t solve the issue it is purported to be targeted at…if there even is an issue.
Extra Link(s):
The Institute for Justice is dealing with a case now in Colorado that showcases the continuing issue of campaign finance regulations on the state level as well, and how they continue to stifle the free speech of everyday Americans. Here they put a video discussing the case in a Schoolhouse Rock manner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5J4rho_pKwo The case has so far been allowed to go forward, but we’ll see what happens.
Despite the narrative put forth by certain politicians like Bernie Sanders regarding the supposed fear of campaign contributions, there doesn’t seem to be much motivation for such a stance…most of the largest campaign donators are supporters of Democrats (the supposedly “dangerous” Koch Industries is one of the exceptions…and they are ranked 49th): https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php
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