There's an interesting convergence of politics and law going on right now around the Pandora's box that is campaign finance. Round II of the Citizens United case will likely be SpeechNow vs. the FEC. In this round, the issue is the relationship between the law, 527 tax exempt organizations, and independent expenditures (money spent for direct mail, TV, radio and internet advertising).
SpeechNow.org is a group formed with the purpose to oppose candidates who, in their view, act to squelch free speech. The named principals are David Keating (Club for Growth Executive Director), Edward Crane (Cato Institute founder), Fred Young (Cato Institute board member), Brad Russo and Scott Burkhardt.
Their stated purpose and goal
The stated purpose of SpeechNow.org is as follows (from appellate court opinion here):
...to promote the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom to assemble by expressly advocating for federal candidates whom it views as supporting those rights and against those whom it sees as insufficiently committed to those rights.
To illustrate how they proposed to carry out their purpose, SpeechNow.org supplied ad copy from ads they had planned to run in 2008 against Republican Congressman Dan Burton and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. Examples were carefully chosen to demonstrate their non-partisan bent. Sample copy for one television ad read this way:
[P]oliticians like Dan Burton don’t like free speech. Burton voted for a bill to restrict the speech of many public interest groups. Under this bill you could go to jail for criticizing politicians.
Hey Dan Burton. This is America, not Russia.
But we still have the right to vote. Say no to Burton for Congress. Say no to censorship.
And against Landrieu:
“Our founding fathers made free speech the First Amendment to the Constitution. Mary Landrieu is taking that right away. Don’t let her do it again.”
What's at stake
Non-profit groups organized as 527 organizations have some specific rules to limit the amounts an individual may contribute. Currently the annual maximum contribution from an individual is $5,000. SpeechNow argues that because contributions are being passed through the organization as "independent expenditures" (e.g., funds used to pay for direct mail campaigns, TV, radio and internet advertising) the limits shouldn't apply, just as they do not apply to corporate "persons" in the Citizens United case.
If SpeechNow.org is successful, any group who spends money on direct mail, TV, radio or internet advertising can use a non-profit entity to make unlimited contributions. They further object to the reporting requirements imposed on 527 organizations, and are seeking to have those abolished.
The political stakes
The line SpeechNow.org is walking is extraordinarily fine. They claim to be an issue-focused group (i.e., free speech), but it's clear they intend to target candidates and pour money into those targeted districts to influence the outcome of elections.
It's equally clear (to me, at least) that this particular group will be completely partisan about who they apply their "free speech" standards to, which raises this question for me: What bright-line standard could be applied to ad copy to distinguish one ad as an "issues ad" from another that's a "candidate ad"? The two are inextricably linked. I can't see where any group worth their salt would buy ads to say "Vote Candidate X out of office. That is all."
Ads generally wrap around an issue with the goal of defeating the candidate, while promoting the issue as a second outcome. If SpeechNow.org succeeds, what we will have here is direct advocacy for or against candidates by groups allowed unlimited donations for buying such advertising while eliminating all disclosure as to who the buyers are.
As one who spends a lot of time following campaign money, I see this as a disaster.
This case is also about to become a political football in the pending nomination of Elena Kagan.
The FEC and the U.S. Solicitor General’s office have not yet decided whether to take to the Supreme Court the FEC’s unanimous loss in the D.C. Circuit Court in the SpeechNow case. While the time to file a challenge before the Justices does not expire until late June, the motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court will put added pressure on government officials to make up their minds on the next step. They must respond to the new motion in 14 days, for example — that is, before the end of this month.
One of the issues surrounding Kagan's confirmation is the question of her recusal in cases where she has acted on behalf of the United States as Solicitor General. Forcing this case to the front seems to be pure politics to me. If she has acted on this case as Solicitor General, she will not be able to hear it as a Supreme Court Justice.
Given the decision of the appellate court and the Supreme Court in the Citizens United matter, it may not matter anyway. It could be that they've won this outright already, in which case we all lose.
Here's what concerns me the most. Even if we have publicly financed elections, this kind of activity will not stop. Voters will be barraged with ad after ad after ad for a candidate, against a candidate, via a known organization or via an astroturf group. While public financing will certainly separate candidates one degree or so from the money, the inarguable influence of these independent expenditures will still hold sway with the candidate and with the public and continue to subvert the process.
Really, the only hope we have for free and fair elections is an educated, engaged electorate with the ability to discern the difference between candidates without 30 second sound bites or propaganda films to promote or defeat them.