09/27/2012 06:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Money And Speech: One And The Same Feels Deeply Wrong, You Know?

WASHINGTON -- Earlier today, on Huff Post Live, Huffington Post D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim and Republican strategist Brian Morganstern had themselves a merry little debate over whether "money" was the equivalent of "speech." Please feel free to watch the excerpted argument above, in which Grim discusses the need for a more clean and clear delineation between the two concepts, while Morganstern argues that the current regime, in which the two concepts are inextricably linked, is ideal because one cannot, say, mount a political advertising campaign without money.

Leaving aside the issue of what was so darned wrong with America during the hundred-year period when money in politics was better regulated, the real matter at hand is what's gone wrong in America since it was decided that free speech required all citizens to cut six-figure checks. To put it glibly, it's become a 99 percent vs. 1 percent matter, in which some free speech is, as they say, more equal than others, and people like Mitt Romney mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (to use just one example, they truly do exist, to varying levels of efficacy and bankroll-ability, on both sides) get to have the most free speech of all.

In the pageantry of an election year, political candidates love to tout their small donors. All those folks giving $25? They just serve to prove that their candidate is down for the middle-class cause. But the truth is that over the past four years, elections have clearly been driven by big donors, especially big business -- which already bankroll a massive lobbying operation to sway legislators to shape laws to their liking. And while it took a while to get the big-money engine cranked, two years after the Citizens United decision, the flow of money into the system has skyrocketed, as this chart from The Nation/The Investigative Fund's big piece on money in politics will finally make clear.


Your piddling $25 donation doesn't look like much, does it? And considering the fact that in 2008, the financial sector was able to get a $4.8 trillion bailout -- of taxpayer money -- for galactic screw-ups, it's pretty clear that going forward, politicians are going to be even less amenable to prioritizing the needs of those who speak with pocket change against the needs of those with the million-dollar megaphones.

But more broadly speaking, does money really equal speech? Man, it's too bad former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) didn't know that! He could have contended in court that when the FBI "filmed [him] taking $100,000 in bribes from a government informant," he was only really taking words, and that when "agents found $90,000 in marked money in the freezer of Jefferson’s Virginia home," well ... that was just a whole lot of speech he was keeping on ice. Wouldn't want all that freedom of expression to spoil, right?

Why would bribery, in this context, be illegal? Why shouldn't you be able to roll on up to your congressman's office and plunk down a nice wad of free speech on his desk? For that matter, why would prostitution be illegal? Surely Louisiana Sen. David Vitter would have preferred to argue that he just exchanged a bunch of free speech with some ladies, who subsequently bedded him, owing only to the magnificence of his oratory?

Looking at it this way, it's no wonder that former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer was shut out of the GOP debates this season. After all, the man insisted on only taking $100 donations from people. He wouldn't take a dime more. You can imagine what the debate officials must have thought about that: "Gee, Buddy, that's all the money you have? It's going to be hard to even hear you at the debates. We don't have microphones that can amplify such a teensy-tiny voice."

I don't know why I'm fixated on Louisiana in these examples -- maybe it's just the whole "Let the good times roll" money-fiesta that Citizens United has touched off. But it must be said, to a certain extent, the whole "money equals speech" equation is being fully honored. You can see it, for example, with the aforementioned bank bailouts, where the money was used to beef up the already impressive army of lobbyists that the banks subsequently used to nip and tuck and tweak whatever post-crash regulatory legislation threatened to arise. Money definitely amplified voices on those occasions. Of course, that was your money that did that. But were you planning on using it? Why didn't you speak up? Free speech, after all.

At any rate, I still recall Newt Gingrich celebrating the Citizens United decision as a victory for free speech way back when the case was decided. Of course, I also seem to recall him grousing earlier this year about how Mitt Romney wasn't competing fairly in the primaries, because he was able to use all of his massive amounts of cash free speech to drown out Newt's message of moon colonies and restaging the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The later complaint, one would think, would necessitate a change of heart on the prior praise for unleashing the big money tsunami upon the world, but as it happens, it did not.

But Newt Gingrich is a "Big Ideas" guy, so I'm left to conclude that the "money equals speech" probably won't cause any further widening of structural inequality in our political system at all, right?

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