THE BLOG

$1 Billion? Do I Hear $1 Billion?

02/12/2015 11:49 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

The bidding in the private auction for our country's political future just rose to $1 billion.

During a recent retreat at the Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage, California, the conservative political network spearheaded by Charles and David Koch announced it plans to spend $889 million over the next two years to influence the 2016 elections. So, whatever rival magnates also have their eye on purchasing the White House and Congress will now have to up their bidding to a neat $1 billion.

Defenders of the Koch brothers and other high-level political spenders argue that it is their First Amendment right to voice their views as much as they want during an election cycle, provided there is no quid-pro-quo collusion with political campaigns. Since the government cannot limit speech, it therefore cannot put any limit on their particular form of 'speech': cash used to fund ad-buys, think tanks, and outreach efforts. The Supreme Court used this logic in the famous Citizens United case, which struck down expenditure limits for corporations and non-profits spending independently to influence elections.

In a democracy, it should go without saying that a few unelected people exerting wildly disproportionate influence over the political process through the depth of their pocketbooks alone indicates that something has gone very wrong. The First Amendment should not only protect the freedom of speech but also the equality of speech in the political sphere. Otherwise, certain individuals who have amassed fortunes, or who are simply born into them, have an unacceptable dominance in the political process over average voters.

The consequences of Citizens United and similar decisions are simply too disastrous to ignore. They have created a political culture that drowns out the voice of the average voter, or worse, prejudices their views by saturating the media with ads on behalf of candidates hand-picked by the wealthy. Not only does this risk inculcating people with misrepresentations of the other candidates in play, but it also fosters a hostile, partisan political environment that deters ordinary people from participating in politics at all. If the Supreme Court's interpretation is right, and the First Amendment truly allows this kind of political control in the hands of the wealthy, then it is time to change the First Amendment.

Some writers like Rich Lowry in a recent article argue that the Koch brothers are well-intentioned, and that therefore they don't deserve the animus they receive. They strive to relieve the burden of government regulation for the benefit of everybody, not just themselves and their friends, so it's okay that they spend so much money influencing elections.

It's debatable whether the preferred policy preferences of the Kochs or any other big political spender actually promote the best interests of the country as a whole. But even if that were unequivocally true, at the end of the day the intentions of the Koch brothers or any other high-level spender are irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether they do this to increase their own personal wealth or whether they truly believe their policy preferences are best for the country at large. These people could have the most honorable intentions in the world -- the country's best interests at heart -- yet their hugely disproportionate influence would still be worth protesting. As soon as unelected individuals are exerting this much influence over the political process solely because of their wealth, it is clear that the normal functioning of the democracy has ceased, regardless of their intentions or political views.

That is why big spending efforts for both Republicans and Democrats are equally problematic. They both reflect the same problem that faces this country and will continue to face it until comprehensive campaign finance reform is passed.

What might that campaign finance reform look like? Geoffery R. Stone, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago lays it out well here. For starters, overturn Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, both of which struck down limits on independent political expenditures. This could be done either by a constitutional amendment, or by the Supreme Court overturning its own decisions by interpreting the First Amendment more liberally, in a way that protects the equality of speech. Then, to level the political playing field, strict federal limits must be put in place on the amount of money a corporation or political organization is allowed to spend to advocate for its preferred candidates. Finally, robust donor disclosure requirements should also be passed for all political and advocacy organizations, so voters know exactly who is bankrolling these influential groups.

No one is saying that this cure can be easily or quickly administered, given today's dysfunctional and partisan political climate, a symptom, unfortunately, of the very problem we are discussing. But it is the only way to restore any semblance of a properly functioning democracy.

The White House, Congress, and our country's political future should not be up for auction to the highest bidder.