Monday, August 17, 2009

Citizens United v FEC Poses Major Campaign Finance Test

An extremely compelling Supreme Court case is approaching oral argument time, currently scheduled for September 9th, 2009. The case, Citizens United v. FEC , will simultaneously invoke issues concerning the First Amendment and Campaign Finance reform. Here's a brief background:

In late 2007, a conservative advocacy group named Citizens United - a 501 (c)(4) nonprofit whose activities include the routine creation of political films - finished production of a film titled "Hillary: The Movie". Without getting into too much detail, it's safe to say that "Hillary: The Movie" is not a film that seeks to portray the Secretary of State in a very positive light. Anyways, one of the ways that Citizens United attempted to promote it's new film was by paying a cable news network to offer it "on-demand" to it's subscribers; that's of course in addition to the typical means by which a movie is promoted. The promotion of this film was abruptly halted however, when the Federal Election Commission determined that the Citizen United film amounted to "electioneering communication" or EC. This relatively new component of campaign finance law, EC, was put in place to prevent corporate treasuries from funding campaign commercials within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election. Although the logic behind the regulation of electioneering communication is immediately recognizable, there is a legitimate case to be made that the government has engaged in suppression of political speech - a first amendment violation.

Adding a considerable amount of intrigue to this case is the composition of the groups which have filed supporting briefs to the Supreme Court, and more specifically, which side of the issue these groups stand. For instance, the ACLU and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell have sided with Citizen United; doesn't Fox News consistently portray the ACLU as an extreme right wing organization? On the FEC's side, we have a healthy dose of women's advocacy groups, John McCain, and Russ Feingold, among others. My initial inclination is that this case strikes a chord with conservatives, who traditionally speaking, have not been as successful as their liberal counterparts in developing widely distributed film productions.

The case took an interesting turn earlier today, when Senator McConnell (R-KY) successfully petitioned to the Supreme Court to extend the time allotted for oral arguments from 60 to 80 minutes.; obviously, this was so that his lawyer would have time to argue. The Senator's interest in Citizens United v FEC stems from a 2003 case - McConnell v FEC - in which several portions of the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) were overturned as unconstitutional.

Ultimately, I'd say that the conflict which led to Citizens United v FEC is more a reflection of our nation's inability to craft reasonable campaign finance law than it is an issue of Big Brother censorship. In an ideal world, a politician's success would not be contingent upon his or her ability to raise vast sums of cash; unfortunately though, there is an almost unbreakable symbiotic relationship between finance and politics. As long as cash continues to be funneled into nonprofits and special interest groups, for the purpose of advancing their political agenda, it's literally pointless to attempt to impose limitations upon individual donors. Besides, the restrictions on individual giving are even flagrantly violated on a regular basis; just check out OpenSecrets and search for a donor by his last name. Notice all of the donors who list their occupation as "Home Maker", and maxed out their donation along with someone else sharing their last name? Here's my suggestion:

Have everyone in the country contribute 50 cents a year towards election financing. Then, take that $150Million and apportion it across federal elected positions according to some sort of sliding scale. Obviously, Presidential campaigns cost more than a House Seat. Television commercials will be regulated such that each candidate has an equal amount of air time. Television commercials will only be allowed 30 days prior to an election. Republicans and Democrats will not have a monopoly on this funding either; it should be determined based upon the ability to garner a reasonable number of signature on a petition - depending of course upon the size of the electorate. These funds will also be used to purchase a campaign bus for all qualifying candidates; the bus must meet fuel efficiency standards. Each candidate(s) will have the same amount of cash to finance campaign trips - the transportation for which will be limited to trips on the bus of course. Special interest groups will be allowed to set up a website advocating their position. It may include videos or other interactive media features. The federal government will host it's own website, which will link to all of the various special interest group sites according to category or issue. A reasonable site-traffic threshold will be established that must be met in order to have your interest group's site listed. Prior to the election, public libraries will make special accommodations for those who can't afford a computer so that they may view the special interest group websites. Those who are computer illiterate may also visit the library, or they may pay an extra $1 on their tax return to fund a small printing effort that will distribute copies of all interest group literature to those who choose that route. Finally, any politician caught using cash outside of the "public pool" to finance his election will be barred from public office for life. Any other suggestions?

*Research for this post facilitated by InfoNgen Sphere: Related Content

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