Editorial: Campaign spending ruling is unbelievable

Just when you thought things could not become more unsettled, the earth shakes and the landscape changes. There is the human drama in Haiti. There is the political drama in Washington. And then, there is the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Jan. 21 made a ruling that will affect how the nation’s business is conducted — beginning at city hall, extending to our state capitals, and reaching our nation’s legislative and executive branches of government.The court ruled that corporations were no longer banned from spending directly on political campaigns, and they can spend as much as they would like. There is no difference between the free speech rights of an individual and the free speech rights of a corporation, according to the court’s 5-4 majority ruling.It’s a stunning decision. It would be one thing if the court had gone back and forth and that different courts, with different beliefs, kept undoing what the other one had done. But the basic thought — that corporations need to be restrained from using their disproportionate wealth to affect elections — has been consistently held by the court for over a century. Conservative and liberal. .And the issue before this court did not require a broad overview of campaign finance reform. It could have been decided on narrow grounds, leaving in place an understanding that had been accepted by most. Instead, the court reached for the bathtub’s plug and yanked.Now, instead of being governed by the need to put their campaign contributions through political action committees, they can spend what they want, when they want, for whom they want. It’s the wild, wild West.As Republican John McCain observed, there are members of the court who are “naive” as to the political power that will now be exercised in Washington, and in all elected institutions, at all levels.This is not a partisan thing. The court’s decision will not unleash torrents of cash directed to the benefit of Republicans versus Democrats, as any analysis of current political contributions will attest. For the moment, it may benefit Democrats because the Democrats are the ones in power. And this is about power. Corporations don’t care about party affiliation; they care about their well-being.Defenders of the decision take refuge in the purity of the First Amendment’s wording. Free speech is free speech is free speech, no matter the author. The antidote to speech that offends is speech that doesn’t. The result of the court’s decision should be more speech, not less.That’s ridiculous.There is a tiny issue of equality. For example, Goldman Sachs — the investment firm that just declared $4.7 billion in fourth-quarter profits — can now spend what it would like to “persuade” members of Congress to change their tune on pending bank reform proposals. Check your pocket. How much do you have?If you thought special interests were a problem before, grab the rails. Those who have money have now been given the power to use it indiscriminately. Pretense is no longer required. Lobbyists will step into our elected officials’ offices and deliver the following short, pithy speech: “Dear representative, we would like your support. Here is the check. If you decide otherwise, please understand that this check will be used to unseat you.”It will be that clear.The officials who will benefit most are those who exercise the greatest amount of control. They will be courted assiduously. The court’s decision has just made political independence an afterthought. The chances are also considerable that campaigns will become nastier. Candidates no longer have to worry about taking responsibility for what is said on their behalf because they no longer have control.The effect could be equally profound on state and local governments. Vermont, for example, is a small state that could be disproportionately affected because it takes so little money to influence a lot of voters. And there is no accountability. Whereas before corporations needed to be wary about having campaign contributions traced back to them, that is no longer a worry.People are fed up with the political process as it exists and it just became worse. And the timing is awful. The issues before the nation are enormously complex and resolving them will require statesmanship, clarity of purpose, and the political fortitude to decide matters in the nation’s best interests. That has just become more difficult. Shareholders are a corporation’s first responsibility. Corporations have the responsibility of protecting and enriching their stockholders. No argument. The vast majority of Americans depend on corporations fulfilling those responsibilities. But a corporation’s interests are narrow in comparison to the interests of a nation as a whole, which is why for a hundred years we have limited their influence in political elections. It’s not about special interests. It’s about the nation.What’s changed?The last two nominations to the Supreme Court. That’s it. Talk about disproportionate power.by Emerson LynnSt. Albans Messenger

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