Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can we be bought?

What hath the Supreme Court wrought by gutting campaign finance reform?

 Virginia Insight yesterday was about teaching public service, but if you listened you also heard guest Bob Gibson mention the startling (and, to this listener, appalling) amount being spent on midterm elections.

Also, thanks to the Supreme Court, it's really unclear who's writing a lot of those big checks. As Washington Post staff writers T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen put it in a recent article on midterm spending. . .
Interest groups are spending five times as much on the 2010 congressional elections as they did on the last midterms, and they are more secretive than ever about where that money is coming from.
The $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms. In that election, the vast majority of money - more than 90 percent - was disclosed along with donors' identities. This year, that figure has fallen to less than half of the total, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post.
The trends amount to a spending frenzy conducted largely in the shadows.
There's an interesting interactive graphic in this morning's Washington Post that breaks down this dollar-spewing frenzy a bit. Note that among the spenders are both old campaign war horses (The US Chamber of Commerce  and the National Association of Realtors) and some very fresh fillies (The American Future Fund. and American Crossroads)

Who are those guys?

(Remember that line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when our two anti-heroes are being pursued by some very dogged guys, and Butch and Sundance kept asking each other, "Who are those guys?"  So, again, I ask you . . . Who are those guys?)

Yesterday the redoubtable Christian Science Monitor ran a worried  editorial about the midterm election spending frenzy.
Whether money flows to Democrats or Republicans (and the interest groups heavily favor conservatives this time), record spending undermines American democracy. At a minimum it reinforces the appearance that money influences votes.
Just as harmful is when voters can’t see who is behind the money that is behind political ads. “Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” the US Supreme Court found in a landmark campaign finance ruling in January, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Even as eight of the nine justices upheld the idea of disclosure, the court’s 5-to-4 majority did open the floodgates to election spending by corporations, unions and other special interest groups.
It ruled that these entities can spend unlimited amounts directly on political messages as long as there’s no coordination with campaigns. The decision was based on the court defining nonperson entities like corporations as having free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Okay, so the Supreme Court decided that big-money entities have the same rights to free speech as individuals. There's nothing we, as voters, can do about that. And it does seem pretty obvious that corporations and unions are spending freely in the belief that their loud, money-backed free speech will drown out the free speech of individual American citizens.

Most of the ads corporations and other big-spending groups are offering in this election seem to this observer skewed, inaccurate, and inflammatory. But I would like to remind us all that corporations still can't vote.

I remain hopeful that American voters will prove to be intelligent life forms rather than gullible lemmings. I'm optimistic that we will search out our own sources of accurate information and considered opinion and vote accordingly. I really do believe that our votes cannot be bought.

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