Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The people vs. buckets of money


   It's what the founders called a certain assertion: All persons are created equal.

   This, too, is self-evident — or should be: A corporation is not a person.

    A corporation has no fundamental rights. It is a legal construct, like a parade license. A parade and a corporation both involve people. Neither has constitutional rights. If either of them did, a dogfighting ring would merit due process as an enterprise.

   Or maybe dogfighting would be protected as free speech.

   Someone should try the latter argument on the wing of the Supreme Court that ruled three years ago this month in Citzens United vs. the FEC that political spending is protected speech under the First Amendment. For the same reason, the court scrambled or negated a host of state restrictions on corporate political contributions.

    All of which motivates a growing movement to amend the Constitution and insert among other things: "The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only," and for the purposes of  influencing elections, "Money is not speech."

   Eleven states and 500 local governments have sided with the effort to overturn Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Find the proposed amendment and sign a petition on movetoamend.org.

   Hear acolytes of the court's Scalia-Thomas-Alito wing rail against "judicial activism," when in Citizens United the court ignored the people's reasoned determination that unchecked political contributions are a golden key to graft.  

   "Corporations as people" was one egregious result of the ruling. The other was the germination of super PACs that could dish out unlimited campaign funds.

   Hence, though the founders said we are all equal, it's not true at all — not when when comparing us to Dallas chemical titan Harold Simmons. His holding company Contran donated $18 million to Republican super PACs focused on the 2012 elections. He was one of the pace setters in a campaign on which a record $6 billion was spent, the lion's share from carnivorous corporate interests.

   What can be done? The first objective is to take up the Supreme Court on its dare and change the Constitution as movetoamend.org urges. Another objective is to elevate the role of small individual contributions.

    Admittedly, the Obama campaign did a good job of that by itself (again) in 2012 by harvesting small contributions at a historic pace — $690 million of Obama's $1 billion in donations coming online.

    However, more needs to be done.

    The Brennan Center for Justice, carrying on the legacy of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to promote a more representative democracy, is one of the nation's biggest advocates of public campaign financing.

    The most doable approach of which I know has served New York City for 25 years now: a small-donor matching program.

    Simply put, under the national program advanced by the Brennan Center, the taxpayers agree to a 5-to-1 match of all in-state donations of up to $250 from individuals. Hence, for candidates who consent to participate, a $100 donation would yield $500.

   Under the Brennan Center's proposal, those candidates who consented would have the present $2,500 federal individual limit sliced in half. Those who didn't would get no matching dollars.

     Sounds like liberal (Democrat) do-goodism, right? Well, the idea has been embraced by Republican Rudy Giuliani, as well as Democratic Gov.  Andrew Cuomo, who advocates a similar program statewide. 

   Truly, nothing is more fundamental to restoring the representative concept the founders first put on that far-off easel (an era before before dry-erase boards) than to X-out, or at least carve away at, the enormous power of big money.

    Otherwise, those of us with modest means will always be subordinated to the Harold Simmonses and Contrans of the world. If you're OK with that, please disregard that "created equal" jive.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.    

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