June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Money gives corporations a voice in political campaigns

Corporations can’t talk. They don’t breathe, don’t register to vote, don’t marry and make little baby corporations.

Well, maybe sometimes they make new corporations. I’ll give them that.

Yet, under U.S. law, they are bestowed the same First Amendment free-speech protections as living-breathing you and me.

This concept must have been hatched the same way municipalities figured out how to force an income tax on commuters who drive into a city to work, but don’t have a vote in how their tax dollars are spent there. Taxation without representation, they used to call that.

It taxes the imagination. Wait. I take that back. I don’t want to give Congress any ideas.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a ban on union and corporate campaign donations, abandoning decades of precedent, overturning key parts of the 2002 bipartisan McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act, and effectively nullifying similar laws in 24 states — including Ohio. The court did this by the narrowest of margins, a 5-to-4 vote, rejecting entirely the idea that big money is a corrupting influence on politics.

Tell that to Cuyahoga County voters.

Even those who support this Supreme Court decision use terms like “transformative,” “earthquake,” “radical” and “wild, wild West” to describe the impact it will have on the American political system.

It means unions, nonprofits and large corporations can spend unlimited funds to attack or promote a candidate. They cannot give money directly to a candidate, but they can flood the market around an election with as much truth-twisting advertising as they can buy.

If this decision seems like something in far-away Washington that doesn’t impact you, or that the rightness or wrongness of it depends on where your personal politics fall along the liberal-conservative spectrum, don’t be so sure.

Say a large company wants to come into your community and build a big project in a place where local zoning codes prohibit it. Say it comes down to a mayor or township trustee who is standing in the way. When it’s a multimillion-dollar project, a few thousand dollars of negative advertising to remove a roadblock might seem like just part of the cost of doing business.

Say there’s a court case in which a judge who is up for re-election rules against a union. Say there’s a state lawmaker whose voting record isn’t “pro-business” enough. Say you’re a shareholder of a corporation or member of a union. Do you really want to finance a bidding war over political candidates?

I’ve never heard anyone say during election season: “You know, what I’d really like to see are more campaign commercials on TV,” or “I’d really like to receive more literature to throw in my recycling bin and more robo-calls to interrupt my dinner.”

I’ve never heard anyone say: “You know what politics needs? More money! Wealthy campaign contributions just don’t play a big enough part in setting American domestic policy.”

Go sit on any barstool, pull up a seat in any café, sit at any family dinner table, and you will hear everyday citizens say the exact opposite.

Freedom isn’t free, as the saying goes. Neither is free speech. There are costs and there are sensible limits.

There are laws against slander and libel. Judges demand quiet in courtrooms. Hurtful epithets are unacceptable in conversation. The Federal Communications Commission limits what broadcasters can say or show over the airwaves. These limits are guardrails on free speech. When you cherish something, you protect it from driving off a cliff.

The heart of the Bill of Rights is its power to give individuals a chance against the tyranny of the majority. Letters to the editor and news interviews today are filled with the voices of individuals — Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike — who feel under-represented in the federal government and powerless against deep-pocketed special interests. What’s to protect them against the tyranny of that minority?

No, corporations cannot talk. But money does. And its voice in American politics only seems to be getting louder.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.