Thankfully, Dems’ effort to stifle political speech falls short

Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images

While Democrats in Georgia scream “voter suppression” — which I address in my column for this Sunday’s AJC — their brethren in Washington are focused on limiting a different type of democratic participation: political speech.

Yesterday, an attempt by Senate Democrats to give Congress broad powers to clamp down on political speech fell short of the required number of votes (it had cleared a GOP filibuster on Monday). Harry Reid may think the worst thing in the world is to allow the Koch brothers (and George Soros … and Michael Bloomberg … and Tom Steyer … and …) to spend part of their fortunes to influence elections and public policy. In reality, it would be far worse to allow politicians to decide for themselves how much scrutiny they’re willing to receive.

Let’s be honest here: Politicians of all stripes like campaign spending. What they don’t like is not having control over campaign spending, either by themselves or through their parties. Nor do they particularly like the way money has helped level a playing field otherwise tilted heavily in favor of incumbents.

Now let’s be honest again: For these reasons, politicians have proved unsuccessful at regulating campaign finance. For example, Democrats like to blame the “dark money” being spent by outside groups to influence voters on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. But such spending was already on the rise for nearly a decade before Citizens United, because the real impetus was the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law of 2002. That law restricted the ability of national parties to raise and spend large amounts of money from a small number of donors, on the premise that doing so would “get the money out of politics.” Instead, it pushed the money away from the parties, which would have had to disclose it, and into groups organized, run and funded independently. And with fewer reporting requirements.

All Citizens United did was end some of the restrictions on how that money could be spent. The result is that wealthy conservatives have begun to engage in elections in a way that previously was dominated by labor unions. If Reid, et al. were being honest, they would acknowledge the thing that really chaps their hide is that outside spending has gone from being advantageous to them — in 2000, 2004 and 2008, liberal outside spending surpassed conservative outside spending by two-thirds to three-quarters — to a disadvantage.

Who knows if these donors would go back to the old way of doing things now that they’ve been liberated from the control of party bosses — and particularly now that they’ve seen the way the IRS can be used to target and harass those who oppose the current regime. But rest assured that Reid’s demagoguery of the issue can’t be taken seriously.

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NOTE: If you’re wondering why your comment isn’t being published immediately, please read this.

And after we all chuckle about the irony of my beginning stricter moderation of comments on a post about free speech, I hope it will become apparent my new policy is intended to increase civility here, not accomplish anything more sinister.

Reader Comments 0

62 comments
CommonSenseisntCommon
CommonSenseisntCommon

That law restricted the ability of national parties to raise and spend large amounts of money from a small number of donors, on the premise that doing so would “get the money out of politics.” Instead, it pushed the money away from the parties, which would have had to disclose it, and into groups organized, run and funded independently. And with fewer reporting requirements.

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The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

It would help if the democrats didn't use the information provided to initiate government backed investigations of the donors based solely on political ideology.

DontTread
DontTread

The (-end-justifies-the-means) Democrats are always cooking up something to violate the individual rights of those who don't agree with them.

PudHead
PudHead

I think that politicians need to be limited to campaigning to 30 to 60 days before the election, and make lobbying illegal….

Nobody_Knows
Nobody_Knows

We can argue free speech all day but I think there is too much money in politics.  And one would be a fool to say this never directly or indirectly influences anything. 


I say that for money that comes from all sources to both sides of the aisle.

Nobody_Knows
Nobody_Knows

Does your article for Sunday include voter suppression and fraud cases from both sides of the aisle?

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

Now as for the money = speech issue.  Sorry I don't agree.  Free Speech entitles one to say what they wish. If the message is well received it becomes popular and many people become aware.


In politics money entitles one to say it to many people regardless of the message quality. 


Unlimited money means unlimited ideas that have not become popular because of the quality of that idea but because of the money available.  It tilts the playing field. 

Captain–Obvious
Captain–Obvious

@Kyle_Wingfield @TheRealJDW No question the message has something to do with the appeal. But the delivery of the message matters as well, as does the factual accuracy. It is something that both left and right exploit, but is pernicious all the same. More money means better delivered content (not necessarily substance) and wider distribution.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Kyle_Wingfield if worded correctly, of course. it's all about the spin. a lie told often enough becomes the truth to those who do little to investigate at the outset - which in the US is most folks when it comes to politics.

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

@Kyle_Wingfield @TheRealJDW In many cases yes.  Both parties do it but the narratives that are pushed with this unidentified 501C money invariably is a marketing campaign designed to create a narrative.  Not produce factual information to be considered. 


For example ObamaCare...the false narrative is people don't support it yet when asked about it's specific components they do.  100% Marketing. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@TheRealJDW And the people you nominate to judge statements for accuracy are ... politicians? Specifically, members of Congress???

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@TheRealJDW Do you really believe an idea becomes popular because lots of people heard it, not because they agreed with it?

Doug_B
Doug_B

First, money is not speech.


Second, Fox News has had a nonstop political ad running for a couple of decades now with a monetary value that dwarfs any other political expenditure.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Doug_B 

Buckley v. Valeo 


Judgment

The majority of the Supreme Court held that a key provision of the Campaign Finance Act, § 608(a), which limited expenditure at election campaigns was "unconstitutional", and contrary to the First Amendment. The leading opinion viewed spending money as a form of political "speech" which could not be restricted. The government only had a compelling interest in preventing "corruption or its appearance", and so it was only contributions that should be targeted because of the danger of "quid pro quo" exchanges. Otherwise the majority of the Court sustained the Act's limits on individual contributions, as well as the disclosure and reporting provisions and the public financing scheme. Brennan, Stewart, and Powell joined in the leading opinion. The majority also held that the method for appointments to the Federal Election Commission was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.[3] The Supreme Court opined that these powers could properly be exercised by an "Officer of the United States" (validly appointed under Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution) but held that the Commissioners could not exercise this significant authority because they were not "appointed". Id. at 137. Burger and Rehnquist agreed that limits on expenditure were unconstitutional, but dissented otherwise, stating that they would have held much larger parts of the Act to be unconstitutional.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

 The United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations. The principles articulated by the Supreme Court in the case have also been extended to labor unions and other associations.

In politics money is speech. It's also the settled law of the land.

Likewise
Likewise

By Gawd!  They would outlaw SNL!

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

"Who knows if these donors would go back to the old way of doing things now that they’ve been liberated from the control of party bosses"


It's all about these donors.  Great article Kyle. 


I'm not familiar with the "restrictions on free speech" that you refer to, but if it's a step to reduce the fraud and bribery around elections, it would probably be a good step.  As it is now, "free speech" from Republicans means "more money in my pocket, since money equals speech".  



Mr_B
Mr_B

Kyle: Would you support a system in which anyone: individual, corporation or organization could contribute as much as they wanted to any candidate, but were required by law to report who they were and how much they contributed?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Mr_B I don't know about unlimited amounts, but in general I'd like to see money more closely associated with the candidates/candidates responsible for crafting and promoting their message. As opposed to the current kabuki theater in which an outside group can spend lots of money saying things a candidate wouldn't be caught dead saying but can plausibly deny responsibility for.

Mr_B
Mr_B

@Kyle_Wingfield @Mr_B I'm more concerned with who is paying for the candidates speech. I remember an old adage about the person who pays the piper... 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Mr_B Yes, but we have that now. I thought you were suggesting we tie that change to more transparency. Then, let the voters decide if someone besides the candidate they select will be calling the tune.

Mr_B
Mr_B

@Kyle_Wingfield @Mr_B I could point out that if you accept the Citizen United dictum that money=speech, then there is no reason to limit the amount of "speech"anyone can expend in support of a particular candidate.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Kyle_Wingfield @Mr_B 


interesting. many conservatives don't like the current limits, but recognize that there should be limits (see "I don't know about unlimited amounts . . .."). 


how much is reasonable to the free speech crowd (free indicating a free for all after all)?


and what's the amount based on?


sorta like the right to bear arms shall not be infringed . . . except for ways that most gun owners think is legit.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Mr_B The court has also said Congress has the power to regulate campaign finance to prevent the appearance of corruption. So it's a freedom that is not absolute -- just stronger than Senate Democrats seem to prefer.

Mr_B
Mr_B

@Kyle_Wingfield @Mr_B Are you suggesting that we outlaw PACs and "social welfare" organizations? I like it.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Mr_B I don't think you have to "outlaw" them to make changes that would reduce their influence.

Mr_B
Mr_B

@Kyle_Wingfield @Mr_B No, you could just make it illegal for them to spend money to influence an election. (But I don't think that they should be able to contribute to a candidate either.)

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@consumedconsumer The appearance of corruption (and again, I might not be recalling the wording precisely) in each gift itself.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Kyle_Wingfield 


that's probably how the courts view things (made up as they are of the haves more than the have nots), but I'm not for that standard. 


The system as a whole is corrupt. Whether 1 or 1,000,000 get to play in the system, it doesn't matter.


consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

oh, yeah, those darn unions that everyone hates and wants to bust. i mean workers' rights? come on, be glad you got a job dude. you don't like it, go somewhere else.


and those poor, poor rich folks and their corporations . . . they just can't get a fair shake in this socialist paradise Obama and the "real American" hating "liberals" have created. If only they could spend whatever they want to influence politicians, then, and only then, will all be right in the universe.



MHSmith
MHSmith

@consumedconsumer We the American people seem to be the ones who can't get a fair shake.

But restricting political speech or the money that gives that speech volume, isn't the answer. 


We voters need to do our homework before voting. 

MHSmith
MHSmith

Money is your voice in politics, all the demagoguery in the world is not is going to change that fact.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

One thing for people to note: There is a "like" function for comments here, another way you can show which comments you agree with.

HeadleyLamar
HeadleyLamar

Kyle.


I know you don't agree with it but do you think SJ Res 19 has any chance of going anywhere ?


Personally I just don't think anyone has the right to hijack our elections by spending unlimited sums.


Unions...Corporations...Anyone


At least we should know where all that money is coming from if there are no limits on the amounts


Don't you think corporations that give candidates a ton of money and help them get elected are going to want something in return ?



HeadleyLamar
HeadleyLamar

The SEC ( not the conference ) is about to force cooperation to disclose to their shareholders who they are giving money to.


Shareholders have a right to know whether the companies they invest in are playing politics with their money, and the pending SEC rule could put that much-needed information in their hands.

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@HeadleyLamar - How about unions?  They don't even bother to poll their members on who to endorse/ send money.  Doing so would show at least in some circumstances the leaderships' politics are not in line with the membership.  They act like lawyers - never ask a question they don't already know and agree to the answer in advance.

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

We spend way too much money and time on elections.


I like the way the Brits do it - forced to call timely elections with only a few weeks of notice.  Our representatives spend most of their time fund-raising and campaigning.  (Maybe that is a good thing to keep them from making things worse)

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

Money spent is not free speech, esp when it buys rumor and innuendo...lies and distortions...not attributed to a specific party or person. I bet if the dems had a sizable margin in expenditures , you'd be against it! Why should rich people be able to "drown out" comments made by candidates and the poorer electorate? Reverse censorship? As you have seen in your and Jay's columns rebuttals, just saying something over and over and over and... does not make it the truth. The candidates or their immediate advisers are the ones who should be putting out info, not some deranged, manipulative shrill who has a point of view and lots of money.


If I was rich, and you were running for office, you would be tough to compete with statements like you're a wife beater, unfaithful to your wife, beat your children,..etc..( I know it's not the truth, but used for example) esp if I was hiding behind an orgs name that had no assets that you could sue for.

InTheMiddle2
InTheMiddle2

@RoadScholar  This all great rumor and innuendo on your part. Do you have specific examples, (the recent Nunn adds are an example of rumor and innuendo), but do you have more. Also, isn't there a fundamental assumption that if a corporation is donating it is somehow bad or evil...