High court’s ruling is a blow to campaign finance reform

Capitol Journal

Maybe it’s time -- time to junk all the political campaign contribution limits with their jumbo loopholes. Just give it up.

In many ways, the restrictions are useless and counterproductive, driving contributions underground and often through the laundry room.

Perhaps we should allow each candidate free rein to raise -- in bright sunlight -- whatever amount is possible from any source, but require that the money be immediately reported to the public. Faster, fuller disclosure -- maybe that’s the only feasible way to confront the corrupting influence of political money.

If Exxon donates $1 million to a candidate for governor who then advocates offshore oil drilling, let the voters be the judge of whether that smacks of corruption.

Actually, I wince when re-reading these words. They read as though I’m headed for the dark side.

They’re parroting the mantra of the political-industrial complex. The more special interest money in the election system, the more that complex prospers.

The words also echo the spin of many politicians, especially conservatives, who until last week’s Supreme Court decision could not benefit from corporate bankrolling in federal races except through convoluted schemes, such as “political action committees.” They bray about “full disclosure” but never seem to vote for it.

For years, I’ve had two thoughts about campaign financing:

One, politicians are like insects. Some bugs can adapt to a new pesticide and become tougher and smarter. Same with politicians and “reform.” In political Darwinism, the fittest learn to survive in loopholes and outwit each new attempt to sanitize a Capitol.

Two, the ultimate solution is public financing of campaigns. If the public doesn’t buy the politicians, the special interests will.

But the voters show no inclination toward buying public financing, at least of state politicians’ campaigns -- not when elected officials are so mistrusted and Sacramento so destitute.

What I never thought was that the Supreme Court one day would decree that the 1st Amendment applies equally to individuals and to corporations -- AIG, Exxon, Tribune. . . .

But wait. Tribune, owner of The Times, does have a 1st Amendment right to freedom of the press. So why shouldn’t it -- and Goldman Sachs -- be entitled to freedom of speech? What’s all the moaning and screaming about? Someone needs to explain the difference.

Meanwhile, this seems most obvious: We’ve been headed down the road of reform frustration ever since the Supreme Court 34 years ago ruled that money is the equivalent of speech. I and many other people always figured that money was property.

But the court ruled that restricting money in political campaigns was the same as limiting speech. And that violated the 1st Amendment unless the restrictions were needed to combat “the reality or appearance of improper influence” stemming from large contributions.

Therefore, a billionaire could spend whatever she wanted of her own money running for office, greatly tilting the playing field. She couldn’t corrupt herself, it was theorized.

But there could be limits on contributions to candidates who were not self-funded.

And in California state races -- unlike in federal campaigns -- restricted donations could be accepted from corporations and labor unions.

Exxon, for example, could give a gubernatorial candidate $25,900 per election.

But, through a huge loophole, the company also could pump an additional unlimited amount into an “independent expenditure” committee to support the candidate or attack his opponent.

Legally, the campaigns of the candidate and independent committee are not supposed to be coordinated. But even if they are, it’s practically impossible to prove.

California’s “independent expenditure” plague now will spread nationwide because of last week’s court decision.

“The danger,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, “is that we’re going to have campaigns where actual candidates are drowned out by outside groups. . . . Every time somebody does something to the election system -- either through legislation or a court ruling -- it seems to make things worse.”

In its decision, the court retained the longtime ban on direct contributions by corporations and unions to federal candidates.

But it allowed corporations -- and presumably unions -- to spend independently on political races. It found there was nothing corrupting about that.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who grew up in Sacramento as the son of a Capitol lobbyist, wrote in the opinion that “Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

The most polite thing one can say about this thesis is that it’s frightfully naive.

But let Ross Johnson, the chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, and a conservative former Republican legislative leader from Orange County, expound:

“It’s an idiotic decision that defies logic to presume that a corporation is entitled to the same constitutional rights as the people. Our Constitution starts out with, ‘We the people.’ It doesn’t say ‘We the corporations.’ These are legal fictions that exist because of the sufferance of government. We regulate corporations in a number of ways.”

As for independent expenditures not influencing officeholders, the former lawmaker says: “These people don’t live in caves. If you’re elected to the state Senate and someone spent $500,000 getting you there, you think you’re going to return his phone call?

“And there’s a matter you’re voting on, and they come in and say, ‘This is a silver-bullet issue for us.’ Are you going to vote for the greater good of the state, or are you going to be swayed?”

“Last Thursday was not a good day for the American people. It’s awfully difficult to look at this decision and have any hope for the future of campaign finance regulation.”

How about tossing all limits and just fully disclosing? “I’m still for limits,” he says, “but you make a great point.”

But I haven’t convinced myself. Keep trying with the limits allowed. Maybe someday we’ll get a Supreme Court that knows the difference between money and speech.