At a U.S. Senate committee hearing on June 4, Republican Senator Ted Cruz claimed that the proposed amendment to limit the role of big money in politics (US Senate Joint Resolution 19) would “repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment” and “muzzle” Americans.
Bullshit! Whose “free speech”? In the 2012 election cycle, 60 percent of all Super PAC donations came from just 159 donors; 93 percent came from 3,318 donors, which is just 0.0011 percent of the US population.
And what is the “free speech” Senator Cruz cares about? When a big donor gives money, chances are it will go initially to a nonprofit corporate PAC, which is not required to disclose its contributors. This is what's called “dark money.” The money will then go through the hands of other PACs and eventually end up in a Super PAC. Some of that money will go to raising more money; some will go to identifying winnable, critical elections; some will go for polling to identify effective messages in a particular race; and over 80 percent of Super PAC expenditures will go (as in 2012) to negative attack ads. Where is the “speech”? Campaign contributors are not speaking; they are donating money to win elections.
But even assuming, as the five-vote majority of the US Supreme Court did in the Citizen’s United case in 2010, that corporate contributions and Super PAC expenditures are the “freedom of speech” that the founding fathers had in mind, it is indisputable that the founders intended to create a democracy.
A democracy is about free speech, but it is also about what Lincoln said at Gettysburg: “A government of the people, by the people and for the people.” A democracy is about voters choosing the people who will represent them. Those voters have the right to expect that, once elected, their representatives will be answerable to them, not to those special interests who contributed big dollars to elect them or to those they hope will contribute in their next election.
Of course, we know that in America today voters who believe those things are incredibly naïve. Either that or the billionaires and corporations and other special interests that contribute big money are incredibly stupid.
This is not just a federal issue. In the 2014 elections in Washington State millions of dollars will be spent by independent Super PACs on both sides to influence the outcomes in three or four races that will determine which party controls the State Senate. Last year in the Seattle mayor’s race, independent committees spent almost $500,000. With the Citizens United decision, state and city governments have no power to regulate such contributions and expenditures.
That is why we should reject the arguments by Republicans who oppose US Senate Joint Resolution 19. That is also why we should do what we can to support Washington State Initiative 1329, which urges our federal and state representatives to support a constitutional amendment that would restore our ability to regulate political contributions and expenditures—and would make it clear that corporations do not have the political speech rights of real people.
Jim Street is a former Seattle City Council Member and Superior Court Judge