Our Turn: We must curb the power of big money in elections
House Concurrent Resolution 2 calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which opened the floodgates of unlimited campaign spending. The resolution calls for an amendment that states, “Money is not speech, and therefore regulating the political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.” New Hampshire adults support such a constitutional amendment by 3-to-1 margin in a recent poll.
There are several misconceptions that have circulated through the New Hampshire Legislature about this resolution that we hope to dispel.
The first misconception is that HCR 2 calls for an amendment that would enable limits to be placed only on corporate spending in elections. In fact, the amendment sought by HCR 2 would give Congress the power to regulate campaign expenditures from unions, individuals and corporations. Thus, the amendment would allow Congress and state legislatures to take away the power of wealthy entities and individuals to buy political influence; it would enable the leveling of the playing field so all voices can be heard.
The second misconception is that HCR 2 is a limitation on free speech. Campaign spending is a means of amplifying speech, but not speech in itself. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens stated, “Money is property; it is not speech.” When a person speaks through a bullhorn, the bullhorn itself is not speech; it is a vehicle for amplifying speech. Similarly, HCR 2 does not seek to regulate the content of speech, but the money that well-endowed entities and individuals use to amplify their speech and drown out the rest of the population. As the late Warren Rudman, former U.S. senator from New Hampshire said, “Free speech can hardly be called free when only the rich are heard.”
The current system sacrifices the free speech of the vast majority of Americans to protect the power of a few to buy our elections.
Even if spending money to influence the outcome of elections was speech, limitations on the extent that money can be used for that purpose should not be viewed as violating the First Amendment. There are, in fact, many limitations that are placed on the exercise of speech to protect other liberties. For example, I can schedule a meeting to discuss the importance of a constitutional amendment with my member of Congress. However, if I were to come into his or her office with a bullhorn and start shouting for her or his support, I would likely be escorted out, as my actions were not reasonable in their time, place and manner.
In the 2012 election, 47 wealthy individuals spent a total of more than $130 million to attempt to influence the outcome. Enabling this type of spending on our elections gravely endangers idea of a government of, for and by all the people, and threatens to create a government that is run by a small group of wealthy individuals and entities. Limiting these campaign expenditures is necessary to protect our nation’s democracy.
The New Hampshire Legislature should join the 14 other states that have called upon Congress to overrule Citizens United and join them in the fight to end the corrupting influence of big money in our elections.
(State Sen. David Pierce is a Democrat from Etna. Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.)