So contributions to political campaigns, no matter how large, are ultimately about free speech, right? That, at least, was the reasoning in a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision earlier this year that said there was no real difference between contributions by corporations and those by individuals. Both were found to have a constitutional right to give to the candidates and causes of their choice.
The ramifications, we fear, will be that corporations and other special interests essentially will be able to buy the elections of the candidates they prefer and wield undue influence over the positions those politicians subsequently take.
How will the public even know that the way in which their democracy functions might as well be up for sale?
More speech, intriguingly enough.
Let's at least require that corporations tell us whose money and interests are behind those expensive political ad campaigns. Let's have the high rollers, and even the CEOs, appear on TV and radio to reaffirm their approval of their messages, much as the political candidates themselves are required to do.
Legislation that congressional Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, are preparing to introduce would do just that. It's hardly a substitute for the restitution of the sensible campaign finance regulations struck down by the high court in January. The law that Mr. Schumer and others envision wouldn't require, as some campaign finance reform advocates had hoped, companies to get approval from their shareholders before making political contributions or spending money on campaigns. But it would let the public in on where the money comes from and where the influence lies.
It's interesting to note that the opponents of even modest limits on campaign contributions and campaign spending have long argued that the best, and fairest, way to address the vexing issue of money in politics is disclosure. Let the people know who makes these contributions, to whom and for how much.
In the absence of tougher laws, let's at least remember that disclosure is a two-way street -- and have more of it.
At the state level, meantime, even more ambitious legislation would require the shareholder approval that Mr. Schumer and others won't seek at the federal level. Passing such a law, especially in a state where the campaign finance laws are weak enough to make the federal laws seem adequate by comparison, will be difficult. Still, Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn, (a former Schumer aide), and Assemblyman Rory Lancman, D-Queens, are to be commended for seeing where the Supreme Court's ruling in Federal Election Commission vs. Citizens United is likely to lead.
Remember Justice John Paul Stevens' impassioned dissent.
"The distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it," he wrote. "They cannot vote or run for office."
Yet still they can, and must, be monitored and regulated -- as a matter of the free speech rights we all enjoy.
Federal and state legislators want more disclosure of what are now unlimited corporate political contributions.
At least the public will know whose voices are being heard.