The Supremes Hit a Sour Note


Even as a First Amendment virtual absolutist (with the usual crying-fire-in-a-crowded-theater exceptions), I find it hard to believe there won’t be a flood of bad results from the recent Supreme Court decision lifting limits on corporate spending on behalf of political candidates.

Before McCain-Feingold and other post-Watergate restrictions on corporate spending, we have images of Richard Nixon—and others from both parties– receiving tons of money in brown bags from corporate executives (corporate free speech?). Remember Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who was known far and wide as the Senator from Boeing. We have long known that, while big money may not actually buy a congressman, it sure can rent him for a while. We haven’t always been able to prove the quid-pro-quo, but, as with Justice Potter Stewart’s wisdom about obscenity, we may not be able to define it, but we sure know it when we see it.

If a company now can spend freely from its general treasury in behalf of a political candidate, whose phone call will the busy elected official answer – the corporate chieftain, Susan small donor or the constituent who can’t afford the mortgage payment, much less donate to her elected representative? Unions are also now freed up to spend with abandon, but a declining union movement will likely be dwarfed by corporate capacity.

This ruling is unnerving, despite the assertions of highly regarded academics in today’s New York Times, that there are no metrics to support the belief that corporate money necessarily corrupts. They see no proof there is less public corruption or more public trust of government in states that have strict bans on corporate contributions to politicians than in states with no limits.

One Southern Congressman told NPR last week that, if a company decided to spend $10 million in his district on behalf of a candidate, that company could buy up all the television time and, with it, the election. One thoughtful and community-minded Massachusetts television executive sought to reassure me that this wouldn’t happen, that television executives have the power to turn down such over-the-top television buys in the interest of fairness, and that the broadcasters could just say no if there had been ample coverage of the race in the station’s regular news reports.

But here’s the thing: in an increasingly fragmented media marketplace where each station is struggling with shrinking revenues, will even the best -intentioned television executive today not begin to view the Supreme Court ruling as some kind of goose that lays the golden egg?

An even greater concern, raised by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent, and picked up by a Newsweek blogger, is the potential impact of this decision on money that can be spent on our elections by foreign corporations operating in the US, often influenced by their national governments.

Is this what the strict constructionist Supreme Court justices really think our Founding Fathers intended?

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