Martin Dyckman: Media must report nascent efforts to curb power of money in politics

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The widely denounced Citizens United decision that did a great disservice to the nation and disgraces five Supreme Court justices is only the tip of a hulking iceberg.

An urgent effort to melt that iceberg began in the U.S. Senate last week. You probably didn’t hear about it.

The foundation for Citizens in 2010 was the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, the decision that said that limits on campaign spending by candidates and others violate freedom of speech.

Citizens applied that to corporations (and unions) as if they were flesh and blood, trashing a 1907 law that the court had never questioned until Chief Justice John Roberts arrived with a partisan agenda.

But Citizens merely made a bad situation worse.

The descent of American politics into the slough it is today began with Buckley. It is responsible for the attack ads 24-7, the polarization of the parties, the overwhelming influence of wealthy contributors and their lobbyists, and for the disgust of voters who tune out and drop out.

In politics, money really is the root of all evil. Past the point of establishing name recognition, nothing is left to be done with the excess but to hurl more smears at one another. The money befogs the judgment and corrupts the conduct of the winners.

Paid speech and self-serving motives have triumphed over free speech and honest government.

Congress and the presidency cost $171 million in 1976, the year of Buckley. That swelled to $6.2-billion in 2012, at more than nine times the rate of inflation.

It didn’t take long to see what was coming. In 1982, Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, proposed a constitutional amendment to overrule Buckley. He didn’t get even a committee vote.

Other attempts ensued but only three ever cleared committee in the Senate. Only two were debated on the floor. Neither came close to a majority. Both parties wanted to compete for the money instead.

So history was made last Thursday when the Senate voted 56 to 42 in support of an amendment — SJR 19 — entitling Congress and the states to enact “reasonable” limits on spending by candidates and others, particularly corporations.

That was four votes short of cloture and 11 too few for a constitutional amendment, but it will not be the last word. It is simply the end of the beginning.

This time, there was no Republican on the public’s side; no John McCain, not even the fictitiously moderate Susan Collins.

Marco Rubio voted no. Bill Nelson and every other Democrat on hand voted yes.

There has never been a brighter or more important line between the parties. It should be the issue of the 2014 campaigns.

The Republicans, the big winners since Citizens United, are wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. It is a legitimate issue but not a simple one.

I am a lifelong professional journalist. Even from that perspective, there is no such thing as an absolute constitutional right. The Constitution necessarily balances some rights against others.

For example, my “right” to report what happens in the jury room doesn’t trump the defendant’s right to a fair trial. If a juror wants to tell me what happened, that’s fine, but it doesn’t entitle me to be in the room.

We have an express constitutional right to a republican — that is, representative — form of government. Money in apocalyptic proportions is making a mockery of that. In exalting money as speech, the court continues to pretend that no corruption short of outright bribery deserves to be prohibited.

SJR 19 expressly provides that it shall not be construed to grant Congress or the states the power to abridge the freedom of the press.

That should suffice to protect news and opinion in any context, but I would add the words “or other media” to deal with Ted Cruz’s fears about Saturday Night Live.

Speaking of the media, its coverage — or more precisely, its non-coverage — of last week’s debate and cloture vote was deplorable. Newspapers that ignored it included the New York Times and my former employer, the Tampa Bay Times, even though both have written often and at length about the toxic fallout from Citizens United. 

Editors often figure that what they presume won’t pass isn’t worth covering. That can become self-fulfilling prophecy.

And it’s a short-sighted application of history. The first constitutional amendment to let women vote was introduced in 1878. It languished. But it was eventually ratified, after 45 years, because the public demanded it.

But the people need to know what’s happening, or not, and the media need to tell them.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.

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