Wed, Apr 23, 2014 ●
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The Universal Notebook: Soft money is expensive bribery, not free speech

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Soft money is expensive bribery, not free speech

Former Gov. Angus King, now running as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, invited his Republican and Democratic rivals to join him in swearing off out-of-state PAC money, the soft money that is – thanks in large part to a misguided U.S. Supreme Court – polluting the democratic process.

His opponents declined King’s offer. Now King is the target of a negative ad campaign financed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Normally, you run against your opponents,” King said, “but I’m running against Charlie Summers, Cynthia Dill and a big black cloud with unlimited money. You sort of don’t know who you’re running against."

And we don’t know who is pumping money into Maine to influence our elections. If there is one thing that should have support across the political spectrum, from the Occupy movement to the tea party movement, it is the need for serious campaign finance reform and mandatory of disclosure of contributors to political causes.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins last month voted along party lines against a disclosure bill that might have shed some sunlight on the zombies pumping toxic money into the lifeblood of American democracy. I will take the senators at their words that they are actually in favor of greater transparency and disclosure, but that the bill before them favored labor unions over business corporations, and Republicans did not have a chance to contribute to the bill.

At this point it should be pretty clear to everyone that partisan gridlock and oceans of soft money are threatening to sink this country. I saw Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia on TV last week defending the court’s decision in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate contributions to political causes. Scalia was up on his high horse beating the dead-horse conservative argument that 1) money is constitutionally protected free speech and 2) corporations are people.

Wrong and wrong, Mr. Justice. Money is not speech.

When it comes from anonymous billionaires, foreign governments, corporations and labor unions, it is bribery. Nothing more, nothing less. And despite what you and that stuffed shirt Mitt Romney believe, corporations are legal entities, not human beings. The Founding Fathers never mentioned corporations and certainly never intended to extend constitutional rights to them. Corporations, unions and media outlets should be free to endorse candidates, but they should not be allowed to contribute to their campaigns.

Soft money and PAC money should be outlawed entirely. Only individuals should be allowed to contribute to political campaigns. Only people eligible to vote in an election should be allowed to contribute to candidates or initiatives in that election. No out-of-state money should be allowed in statewide elections. There should be strict limits on the amount that can be contributed. And there should be 100 percent disclosure of whom contributes to a candidate or cause and how much.

The Supreme Court essentially legalized bribery with its Citizens United decision, putting democracy out to the highest bidder. "One person, one vote" should be the rule, but the Citizens United decision gives millions of votes to a few people with millions of dollars.

Of course, the real reasons we haven’t yet been able to enact meaningful campaign finance reform are 1) the people who would have to enact it benefit from the corrupt system we have now, and 2) the media outlets that should be serving as watchdogs on campaign finance are the biggest beneficiaries of the abuses.

So if we are going to take back democracy, it’s going to take popular support for a constitutional amendment to get bribe money out of our political system. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — And a Plan to Stop It" and a champion of the need for a new Constitutional Convention, has proposed one such campaign finance reform amendment:

"No non-citizen shall contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for federal office. United States citizens shall be free to contribute no more than the equivalent of $100 to any federal candidate during any election cycle. Notwithstanding the limits construed to be part of the First Amendment, Congress shall have the power to limit, but not ban, independent political expenditures, so long as such limits are content and viewpoint neutral."

As long as we define “citizens” as individual human beings, this might be a good place to start. We just don’t benefit in any way from anonymous entities casting “a big black cloud” over our electoral process.