May 9, 2014

A poor Constitution

Recent Supreme Court decisions prioritize Constitution over constituents.

While the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) has drawn much attention from this campus, it turns out that the Court also has an opinion on those of us who can now finally rely on our education to become effective political citizens. Last month in a precedent-setting case, the five conservative justices struck down a federal law that limited the total amount of money individual people could donate to federal candidates, parties, and political groups. It will soon become clear that the restoration of this functional freedom for the rich few has occurred to the practical detriment of the many.

The decision hinges on the argument that “money is free speech” and that restrictions on it are unconstitutional. Applied consistently, this precedent is expected to finish what Citizens United started and remove any and all campaign finance restrictions. But without getting into the weeds of the judicial reasoning, let’s instead consider whether this ruling is a “good thing” or a “bad thing.”

The law that was struck down was put in place despite special interest opposition from wealthy donors, and is a reasonable solution to a recognized problem. Campaign finance legislation is needed to stop bribery before it happens. Actual “bribery,” in the sense of “hey—here’s a wad of cash, you’ll get it as soon as my friend Jimmy’s sentence gets commuted,” is rare and hard to prove. Instead, rich individuals and corporations donate money to garner access to and influence over politicians: something like “hey, here’s a bag of cash for you and every other Representative—now what can we do about these burdensome EPA regulations?”

In his decision, swing-vote Justice John Roberts writes that Congress may “regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but defines corruption as “the direct exchange of money for a specific legislative act.” You can’t do that! Well, he can, but it was incredibly naïve and useless of him to do so. When corporations and rich people pour billions into politics, and then stop the flow of money when the politicians they helped elect do something they don’t like and finance their opponents during the next cycle, that is the effective offering of a quid pro quo.

Anyone who thinks that Representatives, who literally spend half their day fundraising, wouldn’t be willing to “change their minds” on legislation in exchange for no longer having to give up those hours hunting down money is kidding herself. Despite the public hand-wringing that Democrats have been doing on television since the Supreme Court ruling, you can be sure that incumbents from both parties are completely content with the possibility of even more money flowing into their campaigns’ coffers.

Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish mega donor to the Republican Party, recently invited potential 2016 presidential candidates and Representatives to Las Vegas. (Surprise: they all came.) There, Chris Christie used the term “occupied territories” in an otherwise strongly pro-Israel speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Immediately afterwards, Christie met privately with Adelson and then issued him a public apology.

When Christie was governor, he always spoke his mind without apology and never took crap from anyone, because that’s who he was, and he didn’t need to change to win elections. Now that he’s angling for the national stage, for the first time it seems that he’s changed his mind simply because a (rich) person disagreed with him. If that’s not even the appearance of money influencing politics, I don’t know what is.

I just turned 18, and since then I’ve realized just how frail the impact of my new political “voice” truly is. Without billions of dollars with which to buy Representatives, pretty much all I can do is vote, hope that the person I like gets elected, and, if they do, hope some more that they’ll enact the legislation they promised to. But it’s troubling that my Representative is more likely to remember the dozens who financed his campaign than the thousands who voted for him. And it’s more discouraging that even if needed laws—like the very one that limited campaign donations—survive the influence of money, they’ll simply be struck down by the constitutional courts without any further recourse or hope of remedy.

So sure, donating massive amounts of money may be free speech under the Constitution, but the end result of this ruling is that I’m forced to question the merits of having a Constitution at all. In cases of secret courts like those having to do with national security and NSA spying, amendments like the Fourth are our only protections. But when people can openly legislate against a perceived issue, such as indirect political bribery, the Constitution shouldn’t take precedence over what the electorate decides is the most reasonable solution.

When all things are taken into account, the Constitution has done a great service to this country. On issues of race, abortion, and homosexuality, the courts have consistently ruled years ahead of changing public opinion. That has less to do with the Constitution than with the fact that Supreme Court justices are (on average) smarter and more forward-looking than the average voter—but only to an extent. In the long-term, our free and democratic society will reach a level of intelligent consensus, the end result being that the good parts of the Constitution will be codified into federal law without any real chance of repeal, and the bad parts will continue to harm our society because no laws will be able to supersede them. We’re getting closer every day to the Constitution becoming a bad thing. That’s a good thing.

David Grossman is a first-year in the College.