Opinion Columns & Blogs

All the free speech that big money can buy

Despite the public's epidemic disgust with politicians, now would be a splendid time to run for office in this country.

That's because the U.S. Supreme Court has made it infinitely easier for candidates to sell themselves to special interests, who in return will peddle those candidates to voters.

The court's controversial decision allowing unions and corporations to spend as much as they want on political races essentially trashed a century of campaign-finance laws, saying they violated the constitutional right to free speech.

The old campaign-finance laws had holes as wide as the Holland Tunnel, but there were limits. Now it's a free-for-all.

Candidates who take a stand in favor of industry regulation are certain to become targets of those industries in election years.

More significantly, special interests will be able to pick their own candidates and spend whatever their shareholders can afford.

For instance, now would be a great year to run as a pro-Wall Street candidate.

Think about it. The whole nation is fuming about the federal bailouts, and the Obama administration is seeking to reinstate tough regulations on big banks and trading firms.

Firms like Goldman Sachs, whose executives don't like the idea, are eager to kill it.

They have a fortune at their disposal during this election cycle, and would surely embrace any candidate who had nice, positive things to say about Wall Street.

The only possible hurdle is public sentiment.

A new Washington Post-ABC News survey reports that a lopsided majority of Americans are seriously ticked off by the Supreme Court's decision on election financing.

The opposition cuts almost evenly across party lines. Of those polled, 85 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents and 76 percent of Republicans think it was a bad move to remove campaign spending restrictions for companies and unions.

Interestingly, on the issue of election funding, the Republican leadership appears to be orbiting a different planet than its conservative base.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP big shots have cheered the Supreme Court ruling, and they've made it clear that they would try to block any new legislation that would curtail corporate donations to political candidates.

Two Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, are leading an effort to pass a new campaign-finance law in advance of the November elections.

They want to make corporations tell shareholders what they're spending on political races, and they also want top executives to appear in campaign ads being funded by their companies.

Knowing who paid for political commercials would definitely make them more informative, but neither the corporations nor their stooge candidates will be eager to advertise the cozy relationship.

Neutralizing the Supreme Court decision is practically impossible without bipartisan cooperation, which no longer exists in Congress. If nothing happens soon, special-interest windfalls will shape the upcoming elections as never before.

If you thought the airwaves were polluted during the 2008 campaign, just wait until the fall. Political ads will be even more deceptive, nasty, insulting and abundant — all the free speech that big money can buy.

That's dreary news for voters, but good news for a certain breed of politician.

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