Saturday, December 13, 2008

Should Organizations Speak Louder Than People?

On December 2nd, City Council considered a report from the Campaign Finance task force, and I fully subscribe to most of the Task Force recommendations. Among recommendations initially embraced by Council, however, is a minority opinion on complying donations. It limits contributions to $200 for an individual, and $500 for an organization. By limiting donations well below the $1000 recommended by the Task Force en suite, Council is headed in the right direction. But permitting an organization to contribute more than an individual would be incorrect.

There is considerable energy in the ongoing national debate over whether the 14th Amendment gives organizations similar civil rights (e.g. free speech) to those of natural persons. I shan't recapitulate it here, but instead refer you to, say, Wikipedia's article on corporate personhood. The length and vigor of the debate is indicated by its being Thomas Jefferson who said "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." To this day we see, and nominally abjure, the influence of corporate money in politics. We struggle with this on the national stage, but Longmont need not idly suffer the same abuses.

An axiom is a statement that stands on its own merit without justification. I offer these as axioms: That money influences elections. That all citizens should have equal access to, and influence on, their governance. That openness and even-handedness in campaigning, as in governing, is essential. That organizations are not natural persons and should not be given advantages over natural persons. And that no one should be coerced into contributing to a campaign.

If you agree with the axioms I think it follows quite straightforwardly that an organization should not be permitted larger donations than an individual. To level the playing field in no way prevents an organization's members from individually making contributions. An organization arguing it should be permitted to make large contributions to a campaign wishes to influence the election in a manner beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. A member of a contributing organization might see his dues support a candidate he would not wish to. We have seen both of these latter situations arise in recent Longmont elections.

Doug Brown spoke in favor of a larger contribution limit for organizations, claiming it permits visibility of which organizations support a given candidate so that a voter can judge a candidate by his supporters. (But an organization may endorse a candidate, and the campaign may accept that endorsement, actually without financial cost to the organization. And an organization's contribution at any reported level -- not just an enlarged one -- speaks of its support.) Chris Colelli focuses on the possibility that a wealthy organization will use other means to influence a campaign, such as though the "527" route. (But Longmont can and should state that those expenditures are not included in what we shall endorse as fair campaigning.)

A $200 cap acts toward putting all citizens within reach of equal monetary influence on an election. And important as a City election is, I don't think it merits a larger limit than, say, a State Representative or Senator of Colorado -- that limit being $200.

Do you think it should be called fair to allow an organization to have a louder voice than you do? Let your Councilmembers know your opinion.

Richard Juday
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Note: Longmont City Council recently voted to go with the lower contribution limits.

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