I always find in interesting how our political parties feign outrage over developments that tend to benefit their opposition. The latest case in point is the outcry from the left at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Whether or not the outcry is justified is not the issue. The outcry is from the political left, because they believe the decision disserves them politically. The right would be just as outraged if the decision disserved their interests, similar to the way the right was outraged at Chief Justice Roberts swing vote upholding the Affordable Care Act.
The Citizens United decision determined essentially that organizations can spend as much as they like in support of or in opposition to particular political candidates. They are still limited in the political contributions they can make, but they can spend freely on ads and in other ways to make their political views known. Accordingly, on the grounds of the First Amendment’s free speech protections, corporations, unions, trade associations and similar organizations are free to spend as much as they like in favor of or opposed to political candidates. Spending is speech, determined the court, whether it is by an individual or an organization.
Critics of the decision complain that organizations are not people. Freedom of speech and other rights under the Constitution are aimed at benefiting individual citizens, not organizations, and especially not powerful multinational corporations. These critics might very well be right, but do they really believe corporations should not be regarded as “citizens” separate and apart from the individuals who comprise them? If so, do they believe corporations should not be separately taxed? if corporations are not entities separate and apart from the individuals who comprise them, why do we tax corporations through our corporate tax rates, and then again tax the shareholders when dividend’s are distributed, and employees when the corporate profits are shared through bonuses or other means?
This is not a criticism or defense of the Citizens United decision. Citizens United certainly invites corruption, as does any introduction of money and financial benefit to the political process. But there are so many areas and levels of corruption within our political process, Citizens United seems to represent one small (or perhaps not so small) corrupting influence.
How about the lack of term limits? George Washington was and is celebrated for relinquishing power at the height of his popularity. Today, career politicians begin raising money for their next campaign the minute they enter office. This is not public service. It is self service. It is no wonder they tow the party line—they are interested in spending their entire careers in Washington. Their public service becomes a political career, and everything that would imply—their political survival becomes primary over and above the public good. And both parties are equally guilty of it.
How about lobbying and all of the lack of transparency that goes along with it. Why is it tolerated? Interest groups could easily make their views known through public congressional hearings or submissions available to the public. Why are secret meetings between legislators and interest groups necessary or even beneficial? They certainly are not aimed at the public benefit. By definition, they are geared toward making known the views of a small segment of the population. Why are they permitted?
How about public sector unions? How is it that people get to vote for those they will be negotiating with for pay or benefit increases? If employees elected their bosses, and could vote them out of office each year, do you think their bosses would evaluate them for purposes of bonuses and raises accurately, or would he feel inclined to treat them well, so that he could retain his position as their boss? Public sector unions are no different.
It seems clear that Washington has become an institution for its own sake, and, because of that, looks for opportunities to grow, survive, and justify itself, in a whole host of arenas. Citizen’s United is simply the latest context for money, power and influence to be concentrated, directly or indirectly, in the hands of federal decision makers.
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