[Debate] Liberal fiction vs. legal fact

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Positions are determined by coin-flip.  Stated opinions may not necessarily reflect an individual columnist’s view, but are crafted for rhetorical exercise.

Should corporations be able to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns?

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Liberal fiction vs. legal fact

By Austin Davis

When it comes to politics, I’m firmly left of center, but I find myself at odds with my liberal cohorts when it comes to the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The left-wing opposition usually denounces the ruling as subversive to democracy or even delusional. So far most of the public discourse has focused on philosophical questions. Are corporations really people? Is money really a form of free speech?

These are certainly interesting questions, but they distract from the real issues at stake in the ruling. It is more useful to focus on the political effects of the decision and the legal precedent it sets. The evidence clearly contradicts the idea that unlimited corporate contributions undermine democracy. Far from a right-wing conspiracy to create a corporate oligarchy, Citizens United serves some very practical purposes.

At the surface, the data is far from extreme. According to the “Washington Post,” as of October 26, Democrats and President Obama had raised a campaign total of $1.08 billion, while Republicans and Governor Mitt Romney raised $1.13 billion—hardly a gross imbalance. If we look a bit deeper, however, we can see that Romney has benefited a lot more from Super PAC (Political Action Committee) contributions—$203 million to Obama’s $75 million. In contrast, Obama received $645 million from direct individual contributions (under $2,500) compared to Romney’s $413 million.

Romney may benefit more from Super PACs than Obama in terms of pure numbers, but Obama benefits from this arrangement in other ways. For example, Obama’s increased reliance on direct contributions gives him more control over how campaign finances are spent. In contrast, Romney’s strong Super PAC support is spent independently, without his control, which can be a strategic liability. For the same reason as above, Obama also has a stronger grassroots network across the country, which may help him win swing votes.

Despite popular fears, Super PACs are not omnipotent, corporate death machines. They come with strategic drawbacks and don’t amount to even half of either party’s campaign budget. Moreover, the largest donations to super PACs are overwhelmingly from individuals, not corporations.

Corruption is the central issue in campaign finance reform. The first attempts at comprehensive reform were in the late 1970s, right after the Watergate scandal. These reforms failed severely due to a “soft money” loophole that allowed corporate and union donations to go largely unregulated. In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act abolished that loophole and others like it, but the resulting legal structure was vague and equally ineffective. Soon donors found another gaping loophole via “social-welfare groups,” which are not required to report donor information.

Earlier regulations failed because they could not account for every possible loophole. Donors and political parties will always opt for unlimited contributions, even if it means flirting with felonies. Eventually they will find their way around the regulations.

The Supreme Court found a temporary solution in Citizens United. Deregulated Super PACs offer donors a more legitimate and transparent way of doing what they used to do in secret. While we might object to legalizing a former crime, we should not do so on principle alone, keeping in mind that criminalization and legalization are both valid tools of the law. Opinions aside, the legalization model has proven effective in countries where prostitution is legalized and subject to well-defined regulations. They say sunlight is the best medicine.

Take it from a liberal. I am certainly no expert, but the evidence convinces me. Citizens United v. FEC is a positive step for campaign finance reform and for American democracy.

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