Saturday, January 23, 2010

Credit Reports For Politicians?

There has been a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth over Thursday's Supreme Court decision to strike down laws which limit corporate spending on campaigns. I myself wrote a post touching on the subject tangentially in which I argued that the idea that corporations should be considered as persons (with all of the rights held by persons under the Constitution.) While I did say that I believed that the decision was technically correct, I implied that it could only be considered so if you accept that notion of corporate personhood.

This implication was wrong, as the First Amendment does not simply give people the right to free speech, but goes beyond that, proscribing any interference in any speech whatsoever.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 
Restricting the ability of corporations speak about issues or to influence the opinions of voters through speech is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

And yet allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns, and to essentially sponsor candidates cannot be good for Democracy.

What can we do?

We could amend the Constitution. But how? Do we really want to ban political speech by any corporation? I can't believe anyone would seriously advocate a position that extreme. I certainly wouldn't. Would we ban speech by only certain corporations? Who would make those decisions? Which corporations would be allowed speech, and which wouldn't? I can't see how this could ever work, nor do I think it would be a positive thing.

These are tough questions. I believe that the political power of the elite, expressed through massive campaign contributions, is a serious threat to our country. But the importance of protecting free speech outweighs these concerns.

I also believe that a large part of the problem isn't just that people are paid to express opinions by corporations, or that politicians vote the way their largest campaign contributors want them to. It's that voters do not know enough about who is funding who.

When a retired general appears as an independent analyst on CNBC or in front of Congress and advocates that the Pentagon buy large numbers of a specific armored vehicle, we should not censor his speech. But we should require that he disclose the fact that he is being paid a large sum of money by the people who are selling these armored vehicles.

When an MIT professor testifies before Congress as an independent analyst, and claims that the administration's proposed health care reform legislation will work, we should not censor his speech. But we should make sure everyone is aware that the administration is paying him.

This is the kind of thing that happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And it's something that we can do something about.

We could write a different kind of law. We could require full disclosure of all money paid to any registered lobbyist or politician. Maybe we could have an independent agency compile reports, perhaps in a way not unlike a credit report. This agency could issue a rating for people; it could be kind of like the stat sheet on a baseball card, and it could be used any time such a person appeared on TV, or in wrote something, or was quoted in a newspaper, or whatever the case may be.

These reports could be voluntary. But the public would tend to dismiss the opinions of people who would not disclose where their funding came from, or what their financial interests in a subject were.

I don't know the extent to which the government would need to get involved in something like this. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I'd love to hear some thoughts or ideas in the comment section


  1. Are corporations really persons?

    Do corporations think?

    Do corporations grieve when a loved one dies as a result of a lack of adequate health care?

    If a corporation ever committed an unspeakable crime against the American people, could IT be sent to federal prison? (Note the operative word here: "It")

    Has a corporation ever given its life for its country?

    Has a corporation ever been killed in an accident as the result of a design flaw in the automobile it was driving?

    Has a corporation ever written a novel that inspired millions?

    Has a corporation ever risked its life by climbing a ladder to save a child from a burning house?

    Has a corporation ever won an Oscar? Or an Emmy? Or the Nobel Peace Prize? Or the Pulitzer Prize in Biography?

    Has a corporation ever been shot and killed by someone who was using an illegal and unregistered gun?

    Has a corporation ever paused to reflect upon the simple beauty of an autumn sunset or a brilliant winter moon rising on the horizon?

    If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise if there are no corporations there to hear it?

    Should corporations kiss on the first date?

    Our lives - yours and mine - have more worth than any corporation. To say that the Supreme Court made a awful decision on Thursday is an understatement. Not only is it an obscene ruling - it's an insult to our humanity.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

    PS - I like the cut of your jib, Pete!