Why we need a constitutional amendment declaring that:
- Money is not speech;
- Corporations are not people.
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United, has gotten a lot of coverage this election season, and for good reason. Unlimited donations by billionaires and corporations to super PACs have drowned out the voices of ordinary Americans.
But overturning Citizens United by itself isn’t enough. That case builds on two other cases that can all be addressed in an amendment to prevent big money from corrupting our democracy.
How The Supreme Court Got Us Here
The ruling that money is free speech comes from the Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which upheld limits on contributions directly to campaigns. The Supreme Court feared that unlimited contributions directly to candidates might corrupt them, or give the appearance of corruption. On the other hand, the Court held that spending money in other ways to influence elections, by donating to SuperPacs, for example, is protected “free speech” under the first amendment. That is why unlimited sums can be given to super PACs but not directly to candidates’ campaigns.
Of course, this past election has demonstrated that simply laundering campaign contributions through super PACs don’t solve the corruption problem. The real problem is that when you confuse money with free speech, you give the wealthy and their corporations enormous megaphones that drown out the rest of us. A constitutional right to free speech in the form of money for all is worthless if no one can be heard except members of the .01%.
The second line of cases had to do with giving corporations the same constitutional rights as people. These cases built up over time and slowly added more and more rights for corporations. Actually, this Wikipedia article traces that history pretty well. Granting rights to corporations hit its high point under Citizens United, but it didn’t start there and overturning Citizens United alone won’t end it.
What we need is a constitutional amendment that says that money is not free speech and that also says that corporations are not people. Only then can we begin to pass the laws needed to make our elections fair and free of the corrupting influence of big moneyed donors.
You Buy ‘em, You Own ‘em
Alternatively, a constitutional amendment has been drafted that would require all federal elections to be funded exclusively through public money. When some people first hear of the idea of public funding of elections their immediate reaction is “What? No way am I going to give politicians even more money.” But the reality is that the amount of money needed would be less than $2 billion. That’s about .02% of the federal budget. It could even be paid for by closing offshore tax loopholes for corporations.
Why? The big reason is due to the “You buy ‘em, you own ‘em” philosophy. Right now, elections are paid for by corporations and the super rich–and politicians do what the people who paid them want. When “We the People” can “buy ‘em, we own ’em”–and then the politicians do what WE want.
Democracy Doesn’t Work This Way
It’s important to note that no other major democracy in the world allows for the unfettered spending in elections by private individuals or corporations. Most countries allow for relatively small contributions from individuals and beyond that, public dollars are used to pay for elections. Some countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Norway forbid paid political advertising.
Sure, wealthy individuals and large corporations still wield undue influence in those societies. But the only chance any of us have of a government (local, state, and national) acting as a counterweight against the undue influence of these groups is to ensure that politicians need our support more than they need the support of a tiny percentage of wealthy individuals.