The Supreme Court of the United States acknowledged last month what has been tacitly understood for a generation. If money is speech, then limiting money would be limiting speech. Our Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but the rich get more of it.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows corporations to no longer pretend that their funds are not being used to gain access and influence with politicians. Making plain what was hidden is good. But the ruling does overturn 100 years of judicial precedent, favoring those who claim they oppose “judicial activists” and “legislating from the bench.”
Allowing money to flow more freely into campaigns will lead to political races getting closer and more divisive. Vote totals will portray us perpetually as an evenly divided country, even if it’s not true.
Here’s why. Freedom of speech takes three forms. Only the first involves literally talking. You are free to say whatever you want, so long as it’s not slanderous or endangering others. You can march or chant or holler to your heart’s content. Speech is speech and freedom is freedom.
Your vote is another form of speech. Voters “send a message” to legislators with their votes. Money is now officially a third form of speech, also with guaranteed freedoms. As they say, “money talks.”
Your vote is your voice, but you have to vote in your district, you vote only once, and your vote cannot be divided — you’re either for or against. That’s simple and direct.
But money also has a voice, according to the Supreme Court. You can give money in any district you choose, over and over. You can give money to both sides if you want. You can “invest” in the politicians you like best, each time they run.
Pollsters can tell you the likelihood that your “investment” will “pay off.” Only a winning candidate can pay you back, and the margin of victory doesn’t matter. Only winning matters. Paying for an overwhelming victory would be wasting money that could be invested elsewhere. Only chumps bankroll landslides.
So it looks like everything is even, but that’s just money doing what money does best — spreading itself around for minimum risk and maximum return.
We respond by speaking — literally, with our mouths — louder and more urgently because the outcome was close. We won or lost by only a little bit.
Radio and television help perpetuate the “evenly divided” trope because it keeps the audience engaged, which makes its advertisers happy. This pattern then feeds on itself.
As comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “I try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.”
I do have a suggestion. It responds to an overturn of a century of precedent by reversing a rule put in place up the road from the Supreme Court about the same time.
The House of Representatives is required by the United States Constitution to have one member for every 30,000 citizens. In 1911, the House of Representatives passed Public Law 62-5, capping its own membership at 435.
That may have seemed a good idea at the time, but “the People’s House” is now our democracy’s last best hope. That’s as it should be, don’t you think?
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio represents more than 600,000 citizens. Each vote cast for him is worth only five percent of what a vote for an Oregon Congressperson should be worth. If the Supreme Court won’t allow money to have less of a voice, how about lifting the 1911 law and restoring how much voice the Constitution afforded each vote?
A House of Representatives with 8,000 members won’t be able to function in the same way, but isn’t that what everybody is clamoring for — no more business as usual? Each representative will be about as accessible to citizens as a Eugene city councilor. Each voter will have opportunities to meet the person representing them in Washington.
When meeting every voter can be done by knocking on every door, television commercials will be less important. Campaigns will be less expensive, so money will have less influence.
Corporations may determine that buying access to 8,000 Congresspeople is not be a good investment, returning power again to the people. Shouldn’t that begin at The People’s House?
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. Others espousing this proposal have a website at www.thirty-thousand.org.