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Campaign finance reform needs work from both sides

John Mielke

When it comes to campaign finance reform, liberals largely are wrong and conservatives only offer a partial and shaky response.

According to the left, the majority opinion in the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling is the contrivance of covert agents, posing as Supreme Court Justices, doing their corporate masters’ bidding in the battle for global dominion.

The right celebrates the majority’s enlightened defense of free speech as a legal doctrine but fails to recognize that most citizens have lost faith in the electoral process.

The faith again was shaken when the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912. To many, this affirmed the court’s thinking in Citizens United that corporate or union political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

It was further proof to many that nothing can be done to curb the role of money in politics.

I am skeptical of the conspiracy theories. In this case, legal scholars have pointed out the corporate global dominion theory has at least two flaws.

First, not a single for-profit corporation filed an amicus brief in Citizens United asking for the expanded ability to use the corporate treasury to support political candidates.

Second, corporations didn’t gain all that much. Corporate contributions to federal candidates still are illegal, and it was previous Supreme Court decisions that provided the legal green light for corporations to engage in political speech as long as they didn’t tell people how to vote.

Citizens United changed campaign finance laws forever but not for the reasons most people think. The decision did not extend First Amendment protections to corporations based on some finding that corporations are people.

What the majority did conclude is that “the First Amendment is written in terms of speech, not speakers” and that “an individual person’s right to speak includes the right to speak in association with other persons.” Therefore, attempts to strip corporations of “corporate personhood” as a way to reverse Citizens United are misguided.

Here the court got it right. It is not the job of the government to decide who has spoken too much and who has not spoken enough. The court concluded that who was doing the speaking is irrelevant. It is speech that is protected.

What the majority dismissed and conservatives ignore is the real or perceived influence that massive amounts of campaign money have on the electoral and legislative processes.

Historically, campaign finance laws have stood on the three-legged stool of disclosure, contribution limits and source restrictions. Citizens United apparently sawed off the legs of limits and source restriction in favor of free speech.

However, that leaves conservatives trying to balance campaign integrity on the single leg of disclosure. It’s a good start and it might be a legally sound theoretical position, but from a public policy standpoint, the right will need a few more legs on the stool before voters will feel comfortable sitting on it.

JOHN MIELKE is the vice president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

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