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Yes, we need campaign finance reform

| Wednesday, April 13, 2016

We read Eddie Damstra’s April 7 column, “Corporations, campaigns and the Constitution” that discussed the Citizens United v. FEC case. Damstra said people who disagree with the ruling misunderstand it and free speech. We argue that Damstra does not fully consider the practical effects of the Supreme Court ruling.

Damstra claims the ruling “did not suddenly allow corporations and unions to give directly to political parties or campaigns. … [It] allows corporations and unions to contribute money to independent expenditure committees, now classified as super PACs.” He is correct. However, in practice this is a useless distinction. Rather than donate to campaigns, corporations donate to third party organizations acting as campaign reservoirs. Donating to PACs is less efficient, because they cannot coordinate with campaigns directly, but it still leads to corporations having an effect on elections.

Damstra quotes Justice Kennedy to assert that the First Amendment “prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” This justifies corporations donating to PACs. Such thinking makes sense when applied to an association of like-minded activists. However, corporations are not made up of like-minded individuals. Instead, the actions of a corporation reflect the leanings of its leaders. It is unrealistic to expect all workers in a company to share political leanings.

Furthermore, corporations are not and should not be treated as individuals and be given the full set of rights under the law. Treating corporations as individuals originated in the mid-19th century and serves necessary economic and legal purposes; without those rights corporations would not function. However, they have never been treated as individuals possessing the full set of rights that people do. Corporations are not afforded Fifth Amendment rights. As entities, they are also unable to vote, not because they lost the right but because they do not have it by their nature.

Damstra highlights how the Citizens United ruling “does not permit corporations to spend without public disclosure” and cites the five-justice majority ruling that says, “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” Again, this is correct, yet disclosure does not diminish corporations’ support and sway on the elections. The public goes from suspecting that corporations contribute to campaigns to knowing that they do.

Damstra believes that those who desire reform need to focus on enhancing transparency. Yet transparency does not rectify the fact that corporations have an influence on campaigns that an individual cannot match.

Damstra states that those who understand the case but still disagree misunderstand free speech. We disagree philosophically on what constitutes free speech. Consider John Rawls’ liberty principle: “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.”

Permitting corporations the ability to donate unlimited sums of money gives them an outsized ability to affect change. In a society where equality is held as ideal and everyone should possess a right to affect democratic change, entities should not have the ability to affect policy changes based on how rich they are. Calling to maximize freedom of speech — by allowing unlimited contributions — without considering the consequences undermines the right of the less well-off to have a say in government. Excessive liberty, not properly tempered, can lead to unfair outcomes and usurp the principle of equality which we also hold dear.

While some may argue that “people have freedom of speech in voting and can vote for whomever on election day,” this argument does not stand given the financial pressures that presidential and congressional candidates face when running for election (which is a related topic worth its own discussion).

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) illustrated how elections lead to a focus on large contributions from super PACs and wealthy elite: “For a Senate race, I’m not calling anybody who doesn’t have the chance of giving me at least $1,000. … The people I am calling, you know, are folks that are making, you know, a half million to a million dollars. They have fundamentally different problems than everybody else.”

A 2014 study by Princeton political scientists found that the views of the economic elite predominate in policy outcomes.  This outlook diminishes the ability of middle class or lower class individuals to achieve policy outcomes which favor them, and it diminishes the latter group’s ability to participate in the democratic process.

Ultimately, we realize money will always be a part of politics given television ads, travel and campaigning, payroll for staff, etc. We are not arguing to eliminate financial influence on elections, because “money, like water, will always find an outlet.” But we believe there is a better campaign finance equation incorporating campaign contributions and the individual’s voice, where Citizens United does not devolve free speech into oligarchic excess and a two-class view driving policy outcomes.

Kyle Witzigman
Class of 2016

Patrick LeBlanc
Class of 2018
April 10

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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