Political finance reforms should be welcomed

February 10, 2010 — by Anoop Galivanche

Both Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann showed segments of President Obama’s State of the Union speech lambasting the Supreme Court for its landmark decision regarding corporate political financing, heavily emphasizing Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head in disapproval and mouthing the words “Not true” in response to Obama’s shortsighted criticisms of the ruling. The ubiquitous broadcasting of the clip was probably the most bipartisan thing to occur on Capitol Hill all year.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the past 20 years or so in the realm of campaign finance. The government’s attempts to regulate the financing of political campaigns date back to the founding of the nation, and effective attempts to control donation dynamics are at least 100 years old. So it was a big deal when the Supreme Court recently invalidated crucial and definitive portions of the (BCRA) Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act, that banned corporations from using their own money for political endorsements.

Many liberals across the nation are marking the ruling as a major defeat for campaign finance regulation and are scrambling for recourse. But they are wrong. The decision reaffirms our right to free speech and sheds light on other pressing issues in campaign finance.

While signing the BCRA into law, former-President Bush conceded that the legislation was “far from perfect.” The inherent flaws in the legislation, namely, brazen violations of the First Amendment, were only theoretical at the time, but constitutional law experts around the country raised red flags.

These flaws emerged last year when a documentary of Hillary Clinton deemed so politically charged that it was considered a political campaign ad, was prohibited from being shown before the election. The makers of the documentary, a conservative organization called Citizens United, immediately sued and appealed until the case finally reached to the Supreme Court. The ruling was decisive: However prejudiced the documentary may have been, the government doesn’t have the authority to decide what is too politically charged to be shown on television.

In looking at the ruling, most liberal commentators have missed the point. Popular wisdom is that special interests groups and corporations will overrun Washington, causing the common man’s voice to be forgotten. This is a reasonable worry—and relevant legislation should be introduced to mitigate the clout of special interest groups in politics—but the negative effect of lobbyists has a negligible correlation with the weakening of the BCRA. Simply put, even with the BCRA’s abolished articles in place, lobbyists were, and would, still powerfully exert their influence in Washington.

With the obscuring of exactly whose best interests the government acts in, the term “special interest groups” has grown to encompass everyone from environmentalists upset with dilatory progress in pollution laws to African-American culture groups worried about their kids not getting into college. Regulating the lobby has become a complex entanglement of legality and ethics, the two of which seldom go hand-in-hand, and the shortcomings of this regulation is the fault of no one in particular—certainly not the Supreme Court.

The free speech rights that comprise a fundamental tenet of our Constitution, and even more so, our being, are the very rights that were being violated by the BCRA. Policies that try to control the influence of money in politics are well-intentioned but futile. And when they infringe upon our First Amendment, they’re wrong. After all, the First Amendment is at the core of what makes us Americans: It’s what allows stations like Fox News to continue operating. God knows what Americans would be doing on weeknights without the insights of commentators like Mr. O’Reilly.

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