Cosman: Despite problems in campaign structure, Citizens United criticism remains hypocritical

Critics of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission are misguided. Claims like President Barack Obama’s comment that the decision is a “threat to democracy” are hypocritical.

An overturn of the Citizens United decision would go against the democratic principles established in the Bill of Rights. Criticism should not focus on campaign contributions – rather, it should focus on campaign spending.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case builds upon its ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which established money spending as equivalent to free speech. The Citizens United decision then expanded that right of speech – the right to spend money – to corporations and institutions.

It’s difficult to argue with the court on this issue. It is not in the authority of the federal government to tell anyone, be it an individual or a corporation, how to spend their money, just as it is not in the government’s authority to suppress speech. While the practice of using millions of dollars to spend on campaigns and donate to super PACs is exorbitant, the individuals and corporations donating that money have the right to do so.

The federal government denying a corporation’s ability to contribute to a campaign is as ludicrous as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino telling Chick-fil-A that there is “no place” in his city for the company, as he did in a letter to the fast food company on July 20 simply because he disagreed with Chick-fil-A’s views on gay marriage. The government cannot, and should not, interfere with a private company’s actions in matters of speech. It is too short a road to federally established censorship.

Those that wish to revoke a corporation’s right to campaign contributions must then also wish to revoke a corporation’s right to endorse a political candidate at all. As the spending of money is an extension of free speech, a corporation’s donation to a super PAC is no different than a newspaper’s endorsement of a specific candidate – a common and historically established practice.

The issue needs to be addressed from a different angle. Individuals and corporations have the right to spend as much money as they please on political campaigns. Money spent on campaign financing needs to be seen as a symptom of campaign dysfunction, rather than a cause.

Such excessive amounts are spent on campaign financing because campaigns are allowed to spend such excessive amounts. If limits are placed upon campaign spending, the enormous amounts donated to campaigns disappear.

The regulations sought by critics of Citizens United should be placed on the campaigns themselves, which, unlike the corporations and individuals donating to them, are extensions of the government, thus susceptible to federal regulation. The distinction between campaign finance regulation and campaign spending regulation lies in the authority of the government.

Campaigns for public office fall under the authority of the Federal Election Commission. The individuals and private corporations who donate to them do not. The FEC should restrict the money spent by campaigns, not the money donated to them. And with spending limits, the need for financing limits is eliminated.

I do not disagree that the excessive amounts donated to and spent by campaigns has an adverse effect on elections. But individuals and corporations have the right to contribute as much as they please; anyone who disagrees ignores the rights established by the First Amendment. As long as criticism and activism is focused on campaign financing instead of spending, nothing will get done. And something needs to be done.