For all the debate and furor the United States Supreme Court’s decision on “Obamacare” spurred, another decision could have equally far-reaching impacts on the country.
Last week, the high court reaffirmed its Citizens United ruling as our neighbor to the north, Montana, set out to make the argument that state elections were different than federal elections, and therefore should be allowed to limit or ban money spent by political action committees.
The Treasure State’s long history of banning corporate contributions can be traced back to a time when copper king bribery ran the state with an iron fist.
The court’s decision has a disputable (it was a five-to-four vote) internal logic to it. The original landmark Citizens United ruling said that corporations are entitled to similar rights as any person would be. The court didn’t buy Montana’s logic that state elections are different than federal elections. And it’s hard to argue that there is something inherently different about a state election that would make it altogether different than an election for a federal office. We understand the court’s consistent logic, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it.
But, for a state like Wyoming that shares so many similarities with Montana and other small states, it would be foolish not to understand the important point the Montana case was trying to make.
Montana argued that because of its small population and limited number of businesses, it is more vulnerable to political action committees co-opting the election process and exercising an undue and disproportionate influence in state elections.
And Montana has plenty of history with monopolistic industry and election abuse. One of the state’s most notable founding fathers, William Andrews Clark, a famed “Copper King,” actually won election to the U.S. Senate but wasn’t seated because of a bribery scandal when state legislatures elected U.S. senators. The mining industry at one time owned the towns, owned the stores, owned the mines and owned the press, derisively called the “Copper Chorus” by its detractors.
That’s why Montana’s plight should be Wyoming’s cautionary tale. No one disputes that energy is the main economic driver in the Equality State. And, as such, energy plays a very integral role in the politics of the state. After all, Wyoming is a state that elects the leader of its schools not based on educational philosophy or background, but on how the person might vote on the state’s lands and investment board, which controls some mining and extraction policies.
The Citizens United ruling is troublesome. Setting aside the legal underpinnings of the case, the law, while rightly decided, may indeed have some stunning consequences. One of those consequences may be to allow individuals and corporations to hide behind political action committees.
We doubt if money will ever be cut out of the election process. Nor is money inherently bad. It costs money to run a campaign and promote a candidate. The stumbling block is always one of transparency.
Every time a well-intended law has been drafted to curb campaign spending or equalize the playing field, candidates and their attorneys have discovered loopholes. The laws can’t be written quickly enough, it seems.
Instead, we’d advocate for no spending limits and no tax breaks. Let corporations and candidates spend as much as they want on any candidate or ballot issue. The only catch — full disclosure.
The issue isn’t one of money. People and corporations that have money will spend it on elections and the political process. That will always be the case. But disclosure — knowing who spends how much — is the great equalizer. If it appears that one candidate favors a certain company or an individual, there could be a paper (or money) trail that would link them.
Also, we reject the idea that a campaign contribution is in any way tax deductible. Spending money on a candidate isn’t charity. It’s not a fundamental requirement of good citizenship. Most people who donate to a campaign expect to get something, when you really get down to it.
The answer to solving our broken election system has to be two-fold. First, simplify by transparency. Secondly, if the Citizens United ruling is so bad, then change it.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court re-affirmed a position it has held since at least 2010.
During the course of time, the court changes its mind on positions. Yet, that process is slow and uncertain — sometimes decades long.
If citizens want to fix the Citizens United decision, then they must unite themselves and follow the constitutional process by amending it. An amendment might define a corporation as not being entitled to the same rights as an individual. That’s how true, lasting change can be made.
Choosing a case every year or so in order to take the temperature of the Supreme Court seems like a lesson in futility or the definition of insanity, which is commonly defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.