The United States Supreme Court is preparing to hear oral arguments in a landmark campaign finance case, in which a wealthy candidate who chose not to use public matching funds alleges those funds amounted to an illegal enhancement of his opponent’s speech. That assisted speech, the argument goes, was an unconstitutional government intrusion into the territory of his own free speech rights.
Observers say the right-leaning now convincingly corporatist Roberts Court appears likely to side with the wealthy candidate, and effectively outlaw any and all public assistance that would give the non-wealthy a hope of competing. If this is their verdict, the Court should add to its finding that no candidate can spend more than a nominal amount of personal wealth to expand his or her own speech beyond that of a less affluent opponent.
At present, campaign finance laws bar any individual from contributing more than a certain amount to an individual campaign for elective office, but they do not bar any individual from collectively fundraising massive amounts from wealthy friends and business associates, and now, thanks to the Roberts Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, there is no limit on the wealth outside groups can devote to campaigning on “issues” related to a political campaign.
There is, consequently, no way around the following problem: these ruling are privileging the right of wealthy individuals to vastly amplify their own speech, while directly and aggressively imposing limits on the ability of the non-affluent to campaign effectively. There arises, then, a Constitutional imperative: the reversal of the anomalous legal scenario in which the wealthy can simply spend unlimited sums to campaign without building a movement.
If the logic of Citizens United and of what appears to be an impending ban on public matching funds for less wealthy campaigns is that speech rights should not be unnecessarily constrained, including by the expansion of any party’s speech by rights another party does not enjoy, then the spending of personal wealth on political campaigns should also be banned.
At the very least, an incremental step could be taken: Congress could require that no candidate for public office use any funds that are in any way connected to government revenues. Any money emerging directly or indirectly from present or past tax credits or non-taxation would be barred.
This would mean that no enterprise whose revenues over a ten year period are linked to a specific tax credit of some kind could donate any of that money to political spending, whether on issues or on candidates. Billionaires who have benefitted from capital gains tax reductions, bankruptcy protection or other public assistance, or who have outstanding business with the federal government —defense contractors, for instance— could not spend to influence elections.
But most importantly, individuals who fit into these categories could not use personal or corporate wealth to seek office. Gone would be the days of public servants starting out with a personal “war chest” of $5,000, while their opponents start with $100 million. Billionaire candidates would have to campaign, would have to win genuine grassroots support, before they could become credible candidates.
Is there any reason anyone in this country could give that would justify the status quo, where the über-rich are automatically viewed as credible, because they can buy their way into the public consciousness?