But, Corporations!

TeddyRooseveltAgain, on one of those political e-posters on Facebook (right)

The idea behind this quote sounds great.  I get it.  But things like this are seldom as simple as they sound.

As an example, here at the University back in the late 1990’s, the registrar’s office decided that as a recruiting tool, it would offer an email address to every student. the idea, and it’s not a bad one. It sounds simple, but it’s not really that simple.

Simple, right?

What do you mean by “student”?

Turns out the answer to that question wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Everybody THOUGHT they knew what “student” meant and that it would be super easy to implement. But when people that other people thought were “students” weren’t getting their email addresses … we had to dig deeper. When do you start being a student? Are you a student during the summer between spring and fall semester if you are not taking summer classes? Are you a student during the intersessions? How do we know you’re really coming back in the fall? Things like that. Different people had different answers, and all of them thought THEY were right. (And then there’s the question … does the information we need once we made a decision exist in the data?)

Here, everybody assumes that a corporation is a big behemouth money-making capitalistic monster that exists solely to suck the life out of … well, you know how they are portrayed in the movies.

But there are all kinds of corporations, really. Corporations really amount to a tax status and limits liability with respect to losses for a particular organization. Lots and lots of corporations are not-for-profit and/or are set up specifically for promoting certain causes.

I suspect it’s that last category that is really against disallowing corporate contributions to campaigns (though the big commercial ones probably like to keep their options open as well). And most of them act as a collecting point for smaller contributions which they then use to contribute – helping the average citizen “put your money where your mouth is”, so to speak. Or they’ll actually go out and solicit money from a big commercial corporation. So which corporations will be allowed, and which wouldn’t?

People would just find ways around it anyway — like set up NPO’s for certain causes, fund the NPO’s (and perhaps write off the “contributions”) and then the NPO would contribute. For every well-meaning rule out there, there are loopholes, and if none exist, they will develop.

But … back to the real problem … the corrupting influence of large amounts of money, or streams of revenue to be siphoned from) … and how to minimize their impact on the electoral process (and wouldn’t it be nice if we could limit their impact on the lobbying/legislative process as well?)

What to do?

We COULD limit the contribution TO individuals. No commercial corporations, no NPO’s. Just one name, one contribution to one candidate per race, and no contributions to candidtates that do not represent your district. You must be a citizen to contribute. And we’ll limit it to $100*(GDP/”2013 GDP”) per one and only one real bona-fide human being, per campaign as a way to tie it loosely to the value of a buck in the future.

I could get behind something like that. But then, of course, how do you prove it or keep track of it? It’d be as verifiable as voter rolls or websites that accept credit cards from your maid in Dubai. And if you try to limit it to citizens you’ll likely be accused of being a racist anyway.

Citizens United did not overturn the Tillman Act (signed by TR 1907) which is what I suspect this e-poster is subtly criticizing. CU was not about contributing directly to campaigns, but was rather centered on what kinds of films or ads corporations could make and release near elections as limited by McCain Feingold. Basically, what happened is CU challenged “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a giant political ad to defeat Bush in the 2004 election cycle, and the court ruled that that film was not political speech because it was a “commercial” film (despite the fact that Moore specifically stated that’s why he made it). So Citizens United started cranking out politically motivated films and releasing them commercially, and they got challenged on a Hillary film they made for 2008.

The court decided to be consistent. Whether it was good or bad in the first place is up for debate.

Ultimately, the question of free speech is dicier in these instances than critics would like us to believe. If a company wants to make a movie, and that movie is in any way supportive or critcal of a movement or a party or a candidate … limiting the legality of doing that does, in fact, limit freedom of expression. A bit less so if they are only limited from airing them within 30 or 60 days of an election, though I can see people getting into what constitutes support or criticism. I think the courts have stuck to not mentioning a candidate by name in the past. You have to draw a line somewhere. But Farenheit 9/11 did mention a candidate by name and the court let it slide. The Hillary movie got locked up in court until after the election. You could argue that it’s corporate speech, but your average citizen doesn’t have the resources to make and release commercial movies, and it’s hard to argue that movies and ads aren’t expresssion.

In the end, the best protection from the corrupting influence of money is an educated public … and by educated I don’t mean just passing K-12 … I mean knowing the founding principles and the logic behind them and keeping abreast of what’s going on in the country and the world and applying them. I think that’s about the best we can do.

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