Them That’s Got Shall Get

The people with the money just gained a little more power. Not that they weren’t already in the driver’s seat. The rich have long been able to spend more than most of us earn in a year – and many of us earn in a lifetime – to fund their favored candidates and causes. But there were limits. But those limits took another hit April 2 when the US Supreme Court – by a 5-4 vote – struck down a federal law that limited how much an individual could spend in the aggregate on candidates and give to PACs during a single election cycle.

The limits, the court’s conservative majority said, were an undue abridgement of the free speech and association rights of donors, because the limits would force them either to choose from a large array of candidates or to give less to each candidate than they otherwise might.

“The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion.

I am sensitive to the argument. Government shouldn’t restrict the ability of people to speak or associate, but it seems a little disingenuous to claim – as the court has here – that being restricted to spending just shy of $125,000 on multiple political campaigns actually restricts anyone’s ability to participate in the nation’s electoral business.

Let’s put the number in context. The $123,200 limit – $48,600 in total contributions to candidates and $74,600 to political party committees every two years – is more money than 88% of American families earn annually. And it certainly is more than the vast majority of Americans will ever be able to spend on political campaigns in their lifetimes – and this doesn’t take into account the unlimited amount that can be spent in so-called independent expenditures thanks to the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The latest decision also took a dim – and wrong-headed – view of corruption. Roberts, in his majority opinion, said efforts to curb quid pro quo corruption (the direct selling of favors) were legitimate. Anything else is not. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate called the Roberts approach “cramped,” adding that it “rel(ied) almost exclusively on the quid pro quo bribery favored in the Gilded Age, wherein robber barons casually left fat sacks of cash around in exchange for political influence.”

But this kind of corruption has not been the norm – except in the most extreme cases – since the campaign finance regime was put in place as a response to Watergate. The link between campaign spending and legislative favors is no longer a direct one. What is being traded now is access. As Lithwick points out, “if dollars are speech, and billions are more speech, then billionaires who spend money don’t do so for the mere joy of making themselves heard, but because it offers them a return on their investment.”

Roberts also dismisses the impact that money has on the campaign landscape. He writes that the aggregate limits function as a penalty and a prior restraint, but fails to consider that the vast sums spent by a small number of donors crowd out the speech of those without money. If money is speech, then those with the most money get to have the most speech. And that’s perfectly OK, as far as most of the Republican Party is concerned. Consider how House Speaker John Boehner responded when asked about the decision by the New York Times:

“What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld. You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

Speech and money are the same things, Boehner says. Newspapers get to write, so people with money get to spend as much of their money as they like (which is essentially how Roberts put it). But money and speech are not. Money is currency. It is used to purchase goods and services. It may be able to buy speech, but it is not speech. Treating it as such creates a massive imbalance that privileges the speech of those with massive amounts of cash over those – the vast majority of us – who have just enough to get by.

Roberts says tossing out limits will protect unpopular speech. That’s nonsense. It protects access and not speech. It protects power and the rights of the powerful. And now, the money coup is almost complete.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He teaches journalism at Rutgers University and writing at Middlesex County College. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014

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