This week the U.S. Supreme Court, under the dubious leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., issued yet another opinion that promises to end political campaigns as we've known them. The changes are, to say the least, radical. They tip the scales almost overwhelmingly in favor of moneyed interests and spell nothing but trouble for the American electoral system into the foreseeable future.
Last year, the Roberts court issued a devastating opinion in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission that basically held that there were no limits on how much money entities could spend on political campaigns. That ruling, hidden under the thin guise of protecting "free speech," opened the door for corporations, moneyed individuals, unions, and others to raise and spend whatever they feel necessary to influence the outcome of an election.
Ted Olson, the attorney and former U.S. solicitor general who argued and won the case before the Supreme Court, lauded it as "maybe the most important case in history" and claimed "Citizens United v. FEC is the best chance that we have to overturn some of the most egregiously restrictive aspects of campaign finance law. This is a historic opportunity to strike a blow for the First Amendment."
If free speech is determined by how much you can afford to buy, then perhaps Mr. Olson would be correct. But for those who may wish to hold office but cannot raise the insane sums it takes to campaign these days, the "victory" is anything but a win for the First Amendment rights of most Americans. It virtually assures that, without bottomless pockets, candidates are doomed to be swept away by a tsunami of corporate and special interest spending.
Karl Rove, who many consider the brain behind befuddled George W. Bush, immediately took advantage of the ruling to put together what are being called "Super PACs," which are amassing millions, perhaps billions, to crush any candidate adverse to their view of what our country should look like, act like, and be.
Rove's PAC, named American Crossroads, raised $3.8 million in the first six months of this year, but that's just the start. Rove and his fellow conservatives are dedicated to defeating President Obama's re-election bid next year and, from the looks of it, they will have as much money as they need to accomplish their goals. As reported by NBC News, "More than 90 percent of its money this year came from just three billionaire donors: Jerry Perenchio, the former Hollywood talent agent and ex-chairman of the Spanish language television network Univision, whose trust contributed $2 million; Dallas area hotel magnate Robert Rowling, who gave $1 million; and Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, who donated $500,000." Perry also funded tort reform efforts last year, dumping $7 million into the PAC as its single largest contributor. And of course this says nothing about the notorious Koch Brothers, who are already spending millions to change the course of America's future and crush voices for reason.
Not to be outdone, although somewhat behind the game, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, launched their own Super PAC just this week and have already scored $76,000 from billionaire investor George Soros. Ironically, both Reid and Pelosi had leveled harsh criticism at the prospect of shady Super PACs in the last election cycle. But having had their heads handed to them by the Republicans—and having lost the House Democratic majority while their Senate majority was weakened—Reid and Pelosi have now apparently decided to emulate the Republicans and go for the dough.
Unlike conventional Political Action Committees, which have a limit of $5,000 per candidate, the Super PACs have no limits whatsoever. Apparently the Roberts Court decided that limitations on free speech, such as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, do not apply to how much you can spend to have what the court terms "protected" political speech broadcast to the masses.
Add to this fine mess this week's Supreme Court ruling that struck down Arizona's campaign finance laws on a 5-4 vote. The opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, declared that the government cannot attempt to "equalize electoral opportunities" and, believe it or not, that using a limited amount of matching public funds for political campaigns would limit the right of wealthy candidates or their supporters to spend as much as they want to have their message heard.
A voice of reason came from Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the dissenting opinion and noted that the ruling will have just the opposite effect, since the inclusion of public campaign funds "subsidizes and produces more political speech." Kagan added that the decision will in fact "quash others' speech," with the result that the wealthy will "have the field to themselves."
Montana's history with campaign speech evolved from the dark days of the Copper Kings and their political corruption. But in 1912, Montanans decided enough was enough and passed the Corrupt Practices Act prohibiting corporate donations to political campaigns. Attorney General Steve Bullock went to court to defend that prohibition after it was challenged. But District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled last year that the Supreme Court decision took precedence over Montana's law.
As Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders said in a speech this week, "The United States now has, by far, the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth...as hard as it may be to believe, the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans." And so it's back to the bad old days, where might, in the form of campaign dollars, makes right. Our only hope is that Montanans, as they have for so long, will reject the tidal wave of coming ads and continue to think and vote for themselves.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.