Campaign Finance Reform Is an Assault on Free Speech
-The article was originally published at National Review.
What is the right amount of speech to give to citizens in politics? Both major parties are debating this question as the 2014 midterm elections approach.
According to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who told a Senate panel Wednesday that campaign money is not the same as speech, the answer seems to be “a limited amount.” Stevens, who has been critical of his former colleagues on the Court for overturning a number of campaign finance reform measures, was joined by Democrats who went after the Koch brothers for their involvement in the political system.
Enter Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who in about five-and-a-half minutes shattered the entire argument for what Washington considers “campaign finance reform.” His comments turned campaign-finance pieties on their head and made clear why free speech needs to be paramount in the United States.
Cruz pointed out how campaign finance reform protects incumbents. Instead of allowing as much speech as possible for the American people, elected officials have engaged in self-preservation at the cost of the First Amendment. To quote the Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro from a 2012 appearance in front of a Senate subcommittee, “Let the voters weigh what a donation from this or that plutocrat means to them, rather than — and I say this with all due respect — allowing incumbent politicians to write the rules to benefit themselves.”
Similarly, Cruz noted that incumbents have “lobbyists and entrenched interests” doing fundraising for them. This is in stark contrast to challengers, who Cruz says “[have] to raise the money.”
The senator hammered people who say restricting speech fits with the First Amendment. Pointedly, Cruz said that “there are 300 million Americans who have the right to criticize you all day long and twice on Sundays.” He also asked whether the same people who want citizens and those who run corporations silenced would apply the same standard to The New York Times or CBS, both of which are corporations that engage in political speech.
“…I would ask you, why does a corporation like The New York Times or CBS, or any other media corporation, in Congress’ view, enjoy greater First Amendment rights than individual citizens,” said Cruz.
The split Cruz described was especially clear in spending for and against the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Media corporations aren’t forced to count dollars spent in favor of (or opposition to) laws as political speech. Otherwise, tens of millions of dollars spent by CBS, ABC, NBC, and other mainstream media outlets would have to be counted as spending in favor of the ACA.
Cruz rightly called for unlimited money in politics and complete and immediate disclosure of all monies. While he didn’t get into details, a worthwhile system to consider would be one where all candidates have to post donations on their websites within 24 hours of receiving the contribution. Incumbents would have to post the donations on their official websites, as well, and all contributions would include the name of the donor.
One thing that Cruz did not address was the final step to make sure money in politics doesn’t corrupt: Keeping Washington to its constitutional limits. If Corporation A and Union B each give a billion dollars to presidential candidates, but those candidates don’t have the authority to influence the preferred policy position, then that money is wasted. And since political and business leaders aren’t stupid, they’ll spend the money elsewhere — probably on expanding the economy or doing something else more useful than bribing politicians.
Cruz noted that campaign finance regulation is a bipartisan affair, designed to keep incumbents in office until they choose to leave.
He’s right, and more people should be taking up his argument. Free speech is a basic right of Americans, not a favor for politicians to give out at their own discretion. If money really is power, we should create a system that limits the power of Congress and the bureaucracy — through more speech and more disclosure, based on the barriers put in place by the Constitution.