PUBLIC INFORMATION — Katie Connolly, blogging for Newsweek.com, tells us that today's corporate free speech decision by the U.S. Supreme Court "spells disaster for political transparency." Au contraire: It could motivate campaign finance reformers to turn to sunlight, as Justice Brandeis said, as the best disinfectant.
Due credit for this thought goes to California's dean of political columnists, Dan Walters, who for years has been scoffing at the supposed efficacy of legislated limits on how much and when politicians may take and spend to support their campaigns. Like any fluid, money under pressure will find its channel, bypassing statutory barriers and caps to reach its destination, running underground if necessary, filtered through bogus donors and shell committees.
Walters' columns on the futility of contribution or spending limits to reduce the influence of money in politics could fill a book. His latest installment, published about two weeks ago, points out that some reforms are actually designed to failor be detoured aroundbecause a really effective low ceiling on campaign fundraising and spending would threaten their designers' personal access to what Jesse Unruh so memorably called "the mother's milk of politics."
Walters' alternative, offered once again: "We'd be much better served to eliminate all limits, impose strict
reporting requirements on contributions with severe penalties for
violation, and let the chips fall where they may."
The U.S. Supreme Court is, as recently announced, ready to hear arguments on whether individuals' First Amendment rightsthe right to sign legislative initiative petitions, in this casecan be so threatened by community opprobrium or retaliation if exercised on the public record that they must be allowed to exercise those rights in anonymity, with their names withheld from the public.
The court majority's willingness to shield even professional witnesses and advocates from televised coverage of their testimony in the Proposition 8 trial on a comparable rationalethat they might be harassed if identified by release of the trial video to a wide and indiscriminate audiencemay portend its at least initial inclination in the petitioning anonymity case as well.
But corporations, unions and other fund-source collectives are not comparably vulnerable. Strip away all masks, filters, cutouts and other camouflage disguising them as the source of campaign contributionsby Walters' formula of strict reporting requirements with severe consequences for transgressionand the exposure they might suffer is on a far different plane from the potential jeopardy to flesh-and-blood individuals.
Corporate and other collectives, whatever they may tell us, have no consciences, only interests. Unless the pursuit of those interests is exposed to some limiting consequences, they can be quite sociopathic. So the exposure that their compelled poliltical contribution disclosure would wreak is quite different from any that a single human might suffer as a consequence of expressing a political or ideological viewpoint.
The individual has peace of mind that can be shattered, or a job or other benefit that can be denied or withdrawn, or personal affiliations and relationships alienated, or family members harassed, or even health or life threatened. These retaliations are of no concern to corporations or other artificial "persons." Such entities may catch a bit of a cold in terms of boycotts, stock losses, public relations tizzies, recruitment dips and the like. But they don't shiver, sadden, fear, bruise or bleed. Facing certain consequences in the community for how they spend their money could be a discipline, but would not be a disaster.
Blogger Connolly rightly notes that just because today's ruling begins the dismantling of barriers to direct campaign funding on an unprecedented scale, that doesn't mean that corporations will be more out there in enjoying their opportunities.
Few corporations like being overtly
political. They worry about alienating that part of their customer base who
disagree with their politics, or don't care. They also rightly fear that
explicit political activity compromises brand identities they've worked so hard
to create. Let's say you're a liberal and the company that produces your
favorite brand of recycled toilet paper and environmentally friendly dish-washing liquid starts running ads
supporting a candidate running on a pro-life, antigay marriage platform. That's
not going to breed your consumer loyalty. Corporations aren't like people: they rarely
have consistent, thought-out, political philosophies or world views. They might
produce environmentally friendly products, but they're doing that to make
money, not out of a deeply held commitment to left-wing principles.
That's why independent expenditures are so popular. Bank of
America isn't going to run ads itself. It's going to bankroll a nonprofit
organization called "Citizens for Banking Justice" or some such name, and they'll
make the ads. That imaginary recycled toilet paper company will just give money
to a 501c3 called (for the purposes of this blog post) The Society for Family
Values who'll run vicious attack ads. And now they'll be able to do so right up
until election eve. Sure the ads will have to disclose their sponsor, but that
sponsor is the fictional Citizens for Banking Justice or the like, not the
financial institutions that really paid for it. Ultimately the corporations
will have to disclose their donations, but how many voters will go the extra
step to find out that information and relate it back to the ad they just saw?
In all likelihood, those relationships will just become passing references in
the few media outlets who analyze political advertising.
Today's ruling frees corporations to give unlimited amounts over
unrestricted periods to organizations which explicitly endorse or
criticize political candidates. That doesn't create more transparency,
it simply provides
an unprecedented financial boost to the murky world of independent
expenditures. And that's bad news for the accountability of our
But if journalists and other observers were able to determine the corporate, union or other collective entity source of every dollar not only contributed to but used to create every "Citizens for" front outfitand do so immediately, thanks to mandated Internet filings, for example, even before the public saw the "Citizens for" adsthen a whole new horserace obsession in political coverage might develop. Not just who's raising the most money the earliest, but who's financing whom (or what cause on the ballot), who's paying for the attack ads, who's using stockholder or member money to advance which interests.
At least it would be fascinating to see how immediate and unmitigated total campaign financing transparency would workwhere the chips would fall, as Dan Walters would sayin an arena where the big impersonal influence-peddlers would be told: You can fund, but you can't hide.