If you thought there were lots of ads in the hotly contested 1st Congressional District race in 2008, you ain't seen nothing yet.
The Supreme Court last week overturned a century of law and decades of its own precedents and concluded that corporations have the same rights of political speech as individuals when it comes to advocating for the victory or defeat of candidates. Critics of the decision - including President Obama - say the floodgates are now open for special interests to buy American elections. But the impact nationally - and certainly locally - may be a bit more nuanced than that.
As it stood previously, corporations, unions and other interest groups were not allowed to use their general treasuries to fund ads expressly calling for the victory or defeat of a candidate. For those kinds of ads, they had to establish political action committees, which were subject to contribution limits and other restrictions. They were allowed to make campaign expenditures independent of candidates in federal elections - provided the focused on issues, and didn't include a specific appeal to vote for or against a particular candidate, hence the "write to Congressman So-and-so and tell him he's wrong" motif in so many political ads, which wasn't really fooling anybody anyway. Even those ads were not allowed within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election. Now there will be no time limits and no need for circumlocution on the point of express advocacy for or against a candidate. It's not so much that we will see new kinds of speech, just much more of it.
In the 1st District race in 2008 between Democrat Frank Kratovil and Republican Andy Harris, for example, liberal groups, environmental groups, unions and others supported of the victorious Kratovil campaign, and business groups, anti-abortion groups and others supported Mr. Harris. If, as expected, the two men find themselves in a rematch this fall, those groups and others will be unfettered in their ability to run ads on television and radio, send direct mail, buy billboards on the side of the road, or anything else they like. The money spent by these outside groups could easily dwarf what either man could raise within the district.
The implication of allowing these kinds of independent expenditures may be even greater on a state or local level than it would be in a federal race. Imagine a developer going to a county executive to ask for his or her support on a project, a decision that could mean millions in profits or losses. If the executive says yes, the developer can flood the airwaves with commercials of support in the next election. If no, the money can go to propping up an opponent. The court essentially affirmed the legality of political extortion.
The thing is, that kind of independent expenditure was actually legal for state and local races in Maryland before Thursday's court ruling. There have been some such advertisements in statewide and local campaigns, but they have not yet had a major impact on a race. Whether they will now remains to be seen, but the Supreme Court decision did point the way for restrictions the General Assembly should immediately adopt. Nearly all of the justices agreed that disclosure requirements for the people funding such campaign activities - which Maryland does not now have - would be legal. The legislature should correct that right away. It's in the public's interest and in theirs.
But in a broader context, this ruling merely pokes more holes in a system that wasn't working well anyway. It's not as if special interests didn't already seem to have too much influence on our elections. Justice John Paul Stevens put it well in his dissent: "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." This ruling makes abundantly clear that the only way to solve the problem is to scrap our system entirely and adopt voluntary public financing of election campaigns-an idea that came close to passage in the Maryland General Assembly last year. Lawmakers have traditionally shown little interest in such a system, in the belief that the public doesn't want its money going to politicians. But after the deluge we're likely to see this fall, that might well change.
I do find it curious that so many are upset over this. It is all just so simple. If our elected officials feel this is so wrong, DO NOT TAKE THE MONEY OFFERED BY THE CORPORATIONS. Just do not take it and use it against your opponent who does!
Awful decision. Voters' Ignorance, use your brain. Yeah in a perfect world, all Congressmen would have the character to turn down special interest money. If you think that will ever happen, you've got rocks in your head.
This decision will ensure the richest guy stays in power. And the richest one will be the one who does the most favors to the richest corporations, thereby ignoring the needs/interests of the common man. (You know, the very people he's sent to D.C. to represent. Pesky citizens.) Yeah, THAT'S what representative democracy is all about. Give me a break. Awful, awful decision.
What is clear is the need for a restriction against candidates receiving contributions from outside their districts. Why should outside interests be allowed to give money to someone who is supposed to represent me?