Editor's Note: HuffPost College teamed with the International Debate Education Association to produce the following debate.
Since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court ruling, spending money has equated to the free expression of speech in modern elections. If campaign expenditure reform is not one of the most hotly-debated issues of the 2012 elections, it should be: it is becoming increasingly evident that the mechanisms and sources through which candidates raise election capital have an enormous influence on their political speech. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that statutes protecting the ability of individual contributors to fund political broadcasts legally extended to corporations, because campaign finance laws could not deny free speech rights based on the type of entity claiming such rights. Debate over who should be allowed to donate, and how much, was renewed in the wake of the controversial ruling, bringing us to today: where do the two major candidates stand on the issue of campaign finance reform?
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Obama's Approach To Campaign Finance Reform Is Right.
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President Obama famously eschewed large corporate donors in favor of grassroots fundraising and social media in 2008, casting a wide net of supporters. Following a similar strategy, the 2012 campaign garnered hundreds of thousands of small individual donations in its first several months, shattering 2008 records. President Obama has stated on public record his support for increased disclosure for corporate and individual donors as well as efforts to limit the high-value contributions from corporations that are permitted under Citizens United.
Disclosure laws are intended to bring transparency to the electoral process: By scrutinizing the sources of campaign funds, voters can gain insight into how candidates intend to appoint justices and pass laws while in office. But the Supreme Court sided with Republican opponents to President Obama’s DISCLOSE Act, which failed to gather a majority of votes in Congress in 2010. Under this act, harsher disclosure requirements have the potential to dissuade prospective contributors, which by extension chills free speech and overall participation in the marketplace of ideas. Opponents have expressed other problems with the language of the DISCLOSE Act, including seemingly arbitrary exemptions for large and long-standing organizations—criteria which capture most labor unions. On the other hand, without strict disclosure rules, the legislative agendas of elected officials become more opaque, and the public has fewer ways to hold them accountable. Voters would be forced to rely on the goodwill of their elected officials to voluntarily disclose the sources of funding, a system which generates negative incentives to bury the information that is perhaps most critical and relevant to the public interest.
Additionally, cyclical concerns abound: If it is the case that non-disclosure yields higher fundraising figures, then it becomes optimal for every politician to adopt a strategy of opacity in order to fare better than his or her opponents. A culture of corporate electioneering aided by legally-sanctioned anonymity would likely demoralize voters and funnel candidates’ priorities toward courting big business at great cost to the average American citizen during and after the election.
While it may be a stretch to assert that Citizens United granted corporations “personhood,” the impacts of the ruling are far-reaching for campaign finance law. Even small corporations have disproportionate spending power compared to individuals. Oftentimes decisions in corporations are made by boards of executives and not aggregates of working-class citizens, exacerbating the influence of those who already wield greater financial and political capital. If money is indeed speech, then corporations speak much, much louder than individuals from the outset. Some contend that the voices of unions, which are similarly protected under the same ruling, lend a degree of partisan balance—implicitly acknowledging that the divide is indeed tinged with partisanship—but realistically, even the largest union contributions pale in comparison to those of Fortune 500 companies. Distortion in the marketplace of ideas increases reliance on negative campaigning, which hurts voter turnout and morale while usually detracting from substantive dialogue about policy issues. It also raises the barriers of entry for third-party candidates and more moderate candidates during elections and primaries, more deeply entrenching the two-party system.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has supported campaign finance law reform. Most of Romney’s recent comments on reform have been in regard to laws governing spending during primaries as opposed to general elections. Primary campaign funds are earmarked as such and forbidden for use in general election campaigns until after the Republican National Convention, so the Republican nominee is at a disadvantage against the Democratic candidate if the convention nomination outcome is evident before August 27. Over the years, Romney has advocated various stances on spending limits: in 1994, he supported capping congressional spending, but in 2007, he disparaged McCain-Feingold as undue interference of “fundamental freedoms”. Romney expressed support for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United along with concern about the corrupting influence of corporate money in elections. Many opponents to campaign spending caps make constitutional arguments about whose speech ought to be protected and under what circumstances. A principled commitment to freedom of speech under the First Amendment should not distinguish, through intent or impact, protected speech on the basis of its content or source. The ability of nonprofit and for-profit corporations to directly and freely donate to candidates does not warrant a sufficient governmental interest – decrying negative effects of distortion on elections does not merit federal intervention. Furthermore, the unique harm of corporate speech has yet to be demonstrated. Those who criticize the Citizens United decision often think that it only helps right-wing corporations. In reality, the case allows unlimited spending by non-profit corporations as well as unions. The Super PAC Priorities USA Action has spent over $20 million supporting President Obama. Current campaign finance policies could be improved, but the system as a whole is fair, and repealing corporate free speech would be unconstitutional.
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