Tempest in a Teapot

© St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Tad Armstrong

“Not true” is not synonymous with “you lie.” It is a wee bit nicer, and it does not necessarily imply deceit. Such reactions at U.S. political speeches are frowned upon, but the Brits have no compunction when reacting negatively to speeches made in Parliament. Would it be more enlightening to the American people to permit at least a modest degree of jousting at a State of the Union address? Are we really better off by insisting on etiquette while our president gives the Supreme Court a tongue lashing?

We have not witnessed such a public slap in the face to the High Court since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat of March 9, 1937, a date as good as any to mark the beginning of the end of many of our Constitution’s promises.

The latest tempest in a teapot – Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission – arises because today’s major media outlets pay little attention to accuracy. Our leaders take advantage of that missing key element of the framers’ formula for freedom – self-imposed accountability of the press – because they can.

The Supreme Court’s ruling became public Jan. 21. If the president’s State of the Union agenda sought to dress down the five-judge majority, he and his staff of lawyers had almost a full week to read it. You would think he would have carefully reviewed the ruling before speaking, especially having taught voting rights and campaign finance law at the University of Chicago Law School.

From several feet above the justices sitting on the House floor in front of him, the president said: “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities…”

What century of law? The Tillman Act of 1907 prohibited corporations and national banks from making contributions from their treasury funds to federal political campaigns. It still does. Acts of Congress in 1943 and 1947 prohibited unions from making similar contributions. They still do. These 103-, 67- and 63-year-old laws have not been affected by the court’s recent ruling.

The president must be referring to the eight-year-old ban on corporations using their treasury funds for their own electioneering advertising shortly before federal elections or to the 20-year-old ban on corporations using their treasury funds to incur independent expenditures on behalf of federal candidates.

I assume the people who oppose the court’s ruling would not complain if Congress permitted a wealthy individual in Montana to spend millions on an ad favoring a gun-rights candidate but made it a felony for a family-owned corporation in San Francisco to place a small ad the next day with the contrary view. That was the law before this Court ruled in favor of freedom.

Prior to this ruling, domestic non-media corporations could not compete in the free marketplace of ideas. The statute in question exempts corporate-owned media outlets from its restrictions. Because of this ruling, corporate-owned media no longer can monopolize political speech when the candidates make that final turn for the finish line. Restrictions on foreign corporations were not affected by the ruling.

If the honorable goal of avoiding corrupt elections can be achieved by legislation without corrupting the Constitution, no problem. If not (and this mole hill unlikely grows into a mountain), Article V permits amendment. We should use it.

How can this President speak to the nation with such sanctimony about the judicial branch while failing to address corruption in the legislative branch that sends 300 million of your tax dollars to Louisiana and untold millions to Nebraska in return for votes for his health care plan? I’ll bet the folks in Massachusetts didn’t fail to notice that oversight.

Ironically, the president’s speech included the following: “Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.” That, Mr. President, is true. My sentiments – precisely!


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