ESSAY- One-minute warning: How to really reform campaign finance
Now that the hoopla is dying over the Supreme Court's decision to allow political giving by corporations, it's time to time to consider real political reform, reform that might address the "deficit of trust" the president proclaimed in his State of the Union Address.
What everyone yelling at the high court forgot is that every previous campaign finance reform– including McCain-Feingold– only managed to increase the power of money in politics. The terms "soft money," "527 groups," "PACs," and a host of others all grew from past attempts to control giving.
Have you seen the latest reform? To handle the $17 million in political dollars coming from out-of-country firms, two leading Democratic lawmakers have actually announced they'd like to ban money from any company with more than 20 percent foreign stockholders. Imagine the Federal Election Commission– which has successfully policed what?– trying to determine the nationalities of two- or three-hundred thousand ever-changing stockholders?
The Court majority must have realized that citizens think in terms of the "spirit of the law" and the politicians and lobbyists who write the law know the absolute "letter" of it. Consequently, as post World War II history illustrates, by the time the ink is dry on the latest campaign finance reform, the money pouring through its loopholes will resemble Noah's flood.
Through Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court is giving us the chance to do something that returns power to intelligent discussion of our issues.
Let's control the need for campaign dollars, not the collection of them, by banning all 30- and 60-second spots from broadcast, cable, satellites-– anything electronic that somehow uses the "public airwaves."
Congress, of course, has been controlling airwave speech with Supreme Court approval since at least the Federal Radio Act of 1927. Stations today cannot edit political commercials and must offer the same time package for the same price to any politicians who want it.
And what today do they do with that time? They primarily tell us how bad their opponents are. After 60 years of television spots, we've come to believe them.
Throughout our history, the Supreme Court has always ruled that political speech can be controlled as long as all political speech is controlled. "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech" has never been held to be absolute. Even the Constitution defines libel, an obvious violation of the right to free speech.
The issues in front of this country are complex, too complex perhaps to be discussed in a 90-minute film like the anti-Hillary product behind the Court's decision, but certainly too complex for any 30-second spot on TV. In other words, the more we bumper-sticker our issues, the less able we are to deal with them.
Called "time, place and manner" restrictions, these existing limits on political speech indicate courts would uphold a ban on audio and video spots from television, cable, and satellites. Today, for example, we have "free speech zones" which keep demonstrators away from party conventions; "vote for X" signs are banned from public transit advertising, and anti-abortion protestors are forced to stay specific distances from clinics.
If the First Amendment were absolute, none of these restrictions would stand up in court.
I'm not suggesting that Congress ban all political speech from the air waves. I am suggesting that political speech over the air and cable must be long enough that it addresses issues and not personalities. People, corporations, unions, PACs could still spend all the money they want but in lengths long enough to speak with rational– rather than manipulative– voices.
With a 30/60 ban, the need for money in politics would actually plummet.
Why? Knowing that the second showing of a 30-minute or hour film would get zapped by millions of TV clickers, politicians and their backers would think twice about re-runs while today campaign operatives say a 30-second spot must be seen at least 12 times by the independent voter to have the desired effect.
Today, about three quarters of spending goes to broadcast spots.
Banning all broadcast political spots would force politicians back to the First Amendment's true purpose: unfettered political discourse, not unfettered 30-second trash.
Newspapers, magazines, and true broadcast news shows– whose reporters at least attempt objectivity– would re-gain audience because vicious attack spots would move to the internet where viewers rarely see anything they don't already agree with. The "great right wing conspiracy" could bash Hillary Clinton on YouTube, for example, with few independent voters stumbling across a half-dozen of her out-of-context words.
For context, voters would turn to long broadcasts, both pro and con, and then the morning paper to discover the social, political, historical and economic background to any proposal.
The basis of America's First Amendment, after all, is the concept that "truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas." Banning tiny bits of political time from television and radio keeps the unbridled marketplace while still allowing anyone to say anything he, she or it wants.
And, most importantly, returns this nation to those crucial concepts of "ideas" and "truth."