When Money Talks, Is It Free Speech?

PACs give big bucks to buy access and influence

Campaign finance reform has been defeated again in the name of free speech.

In an era when politics seems, increasingly, to be the pursuit of self-interest under the banner of some high-sounding principle, one can be excused for doubting whether the opponents of campaign finance reform are really so passionately devoted to the protection of the First Amendment. Nonetheless, the free speech argument is important enough to deserve being addressed on its merits.

More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court held that writing a check to contribute to a political campaign was a form of protected speech. To me, the more important value at stake is not the right to write a check, but the principle of one person, one vote - the idea that every citizen should have an equal say in a democracy rather than that "golden rule" by which those with the gold get to rule.

I do concede, however, that it is not altogether easy to know how to protect the integrity of the electoral process while simultaneously protecting the rights of those with wealth to express and support their beliefs.

But how often is writing a check really a form of speech? Here's some information that reveals an important piece of the answer to that question. It seems to demonstrate, decisively, that in the most central arena of campaign contributions - the big bucks given by major interest groups - what is going on is not a form of expression at all, but a clear-cut purchase of access and influence.

Who's in power now?

Between 1992 and '96, control of Congress switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. That's not all that switched. So did the giving patterns of the big PACs.

Most of the big PACs give to both parties, hedging their bets, keeping lines open to all the political powers. But it's those who run the show in Congress who seem especially worthy of their support. In 1992, when it looked as though Democratic control of Congress would continue indefinitely, PACs like those of General Electric, the American Medical Association, and Federal Express gave the majority of their contributions to Democrats. But lo and behold, when the Republicans were ensconced in positions of leadership, running all the committees, these same PACs found that what they wanted to "express" had changed: In 1996, in each case, more than two-thirds of their campaign contributions went to the Republicans.

Implausible interpretation

My point is not about the fickleness of support. Nor is it to criticize the integrity of organizations that use their great wealth to buy political influence in our ostensibly democratic system. It is, rather, to point out how implausible is the interpretation of these contributions as a form of speech.

Just what is the content of what this money is "saying"?

If someone with great wealth uses it to endow a chair at a university in order to promote a particular way of thinking, that, arguably, is an instance of money serving speech. If the person uses that wealth to publish and distribute a political tract, that too might be said to be a way for the rich to use their First Amendment rights. (The press is free, as it's said, to those who own one.) Even if the wealthy use their funds to help those political candidates rise to power whose view of the world is most like their own, that - however unjust in terms of democratic principles - might conceivably be considered an exercise of free expression.

In each of these cases, there is a point of view that is being supported, and thus expressed.

But when the defining principle is that money goes to whoever wields the power, then the transaction is transparently not a matter of speech. It's not the support of a point of view, but rather the purchase of power. The check buys access and influence.

The free speech only comes later when the donor gets to speak freely to the holders of public office, and to receive a sympathetic hearing, in a way that other citizens cannot.

It's bad enough that, under present rules, the government that's supposed to belong to all of us is being auctioned off to the highest bidder. We ought not compound the injury by allowing ourselves to be fooled that when money talks at that auction it has anything to do with the sacred right of free speech.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His ideas can be found at www.worldwide-interads.com/schmookler/

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