Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.
The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.
The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.
Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.
It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.
Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.