2012 is going to be an interesting year. Assuming the Mayans got it wrong and the world does not end on December 21st, we are looking at year of ever-increasing instability. As the Arab Spring shows no signs of letting up, as the economy continues to struggle amidst the euro-crisis, and as the national debt continues to soar, we Americans will be charged with the task of deciding who it is that we believe can best guide us through these tumultuous waters?
Unfortunately, as we approach the November elections, we do so as a people newly crippled by what the New York Times calls the “most conservative” Supreme Court in decades. Back in 2008, a non-profit corporation called Citizens United fought for the right to air a film called Hillary: The Movie within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. At stake was the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which sought to regulate the financing of political campaigns. While the lower courts upheld the 2002 BCRA, the Supreme Court took up the case on appeal in January of 2008 and reversed the ruling of the lower courts.
So what does that mean in practical terms? Well, in short, the case did not alter the ban on corporations and unions donating to either candidate campaigns or political parties. Those limitations are still in effect. But what it did do was make it legal for corporations and unions to pump unlimited amounts of money into politically oriented groups that theoretically operate independently of individuals seeking office.
Still not seeing the problem? Well let’s take Newt Gingrich as an example. Prior to this ruling, no one could make a contribution to Gingrich’s campaign that was greater than $2500. And that is still true. But now, what someone can do is make a $30 million donation to a theoretically independent group that can invest that money into the election cycle in any way that it sees fit.
So what are candidates such as Gingrich, Romney, Obama, etc. doing? All of them are creating Super-PACs, which can raise and spend as much money as they want. Technically, these Super-PACs are not allowed to directly coordinate with any particular campaign. But what happens is that supporters of each candidate create a Super-PAC on behalf of their candidate of choice and use the money solely to support his/her campaign. Then, as happened last spring in Gingrich’s campaign, an aide will leave the official campaign to take on a leadership role with the affiliated Super-PAC. Following that, the candidate will legally begin to raise money for his or her Super-PAC, effectively by-passing the limitations on how much an individual, corporation or union can contribute to the candidate.
Can you see where this is going? In the past, Big Tabaco was prohibited from contributing money directly to an individual candidate. Sure, there were other ways that pressure was applied, but there were limitations in place that sought to protect the integrity of the election process. Now, if Big Tabaco wants a favorable ruling to pass, it has all the power of its bankroll at its disposal. “Hey Newt. You want a nice $20 million dollar donation going to your Super-PAC? This is how you’re going to vote. And if you don’t, we’ll take our $20 million elsewhere …”
In an interview with Time Magazine, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter had this to say:
“We’re suddenly entering a very different world where people with large sums of money, if they choose, are going to be able to spend it easily in ways that may buy elections.”
This is a problem for all American citizens. But for those of us who profess to believe in Jesus the Christ – for those of us who are charged with defending the poor – this is monumental. For the voice of the poor, which is already severely muted in our society, is only going to get weaker when money of this magnitude is allowed to be funneled into politics in this manner. This is why, we, as Christians, should be on the forefront of the fight to restore campaign finance restrictions. While I understand the issues related to the first amendment and the protection of free speech, we have to ask the question: whose right to speak is being protected here? The vox populi or the vox opulenta?