July 8, 2012
In the latest ripple from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the eighth richest American has joined forces with the fourth- and fifth richest to sway the 2012 election.
Number 8 on the Forbes richest list is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s White House bid. Adelson just threw another $10 million into a political operation run by brothers Charles and David Koch, each of whom, Forbes estimates, is worth $25 billion.
Adelson’s latest contribution will go to the Koch network of “superPACs” dedicated to defeat President Obama and elect Republicans this fall. The Koch network plans to spend an astounding $400 million this year on “independent” ads in support of Republican campaigns. Billionaires and millionaires are funding superPACs for Democrats as well, with the big money on both sides distorting the campaign and drowning out the voices of ordinary voters and even the candidates’ official campaigns.
Money has always infected politics, but this dramatic increase in spending comes courtesy of the Supreme Court. Under Citizens United and some decisions preceding it, money is speech, and corporate campaign donations cannot be limited, because corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as individuals.
Is this really a problem? For years, columnist George Will has ridiculed complaints about campaign spending by pointing to the amount Americans spend on yogurt, or potato chips, which consume more money but are far less important than choosing a president.
But when Americans spend millions on yogurt, they get yogurt. What do billionaires get when they throw fortunes at a favored political candidate?
Yes, they want their views expressed and their favorites to win, but some billionaires have financial interests that can benefit directly from access to power. Adelson is a “hawk’” on Israel, a strong opponent of the two-state solution long favored by U.S. policymakers. He also has huge holdings in China, where his current and planned casinos are generating billions. If tensions arise between the U.S. and China, would he hesitate to use the political leverage he’s purchasing to protect his business interests?
The Koch brothers are heavily invested in fossil fuels. They consider themselves libertarians, but have used their political influence to protect tax perks for the oil industry, and to discourage policies that respond to global climate change.
As Americans, they are free to hold and express those views, but they should win policy arguments with their ideas, not their checkbooks. Citizens should engage in politics as individuals. Corporate CEOs and union officers should not be able to give money from shareholders and union members to politicians without their express consent.
The consequences of Citizens United are already seen in the rise of superPACs and the flow of unprecedented amounts of special interest money into the most expensive election campaign ever. Overturning a century of laws regulating campaign spending was a mistake. But it’s a mistake the Supreme Court shows no interest in correcting. Two weeks ago it reiterated its position by overturning, 5-4, a Montana state law prohibiting corporate campaign contributions.
Without a change of heart on the high court — or a change of personnel — the only remedy to Citizens United is a constitutional amendment. How such an amendment would be worded so as not to squelch free political speech or add a new distortion to the political process is a subject for debate. That debate should begin now.
That’s what legislatures of 66 Massachusetts cities and towns have said. Town Meetings and city councils from across the commonwealth, including Framingham, Natick, Medway and Boston, adopted resolutions this spring calling on members of the Congressional delegation to support such an amendment.
The state Legislature should join that chorus of encouragement. There is support in both houses for a resolution, championed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, calling on Congress to send to the states an amendment limiting free speech rights to individuals, not corporations. That resolution should be brought to the floor for a vote while the Legislature is still in session.
Lawmakers should also take the immediate step of broadening the requirements under state law for disclosing the sources of campaign contributions. Massachusetts cannot keep superPACs out of state and local elections, but it can require their donors disclose their names to the state, and the state make them accessible online to the public.