Observe American politics for more than a few minutes and you’ll notice something interesting. For the amount of lip service that politicians give to “common sense reforms,” our government just won’t fix its most obvious problems. The national debt is a prime example. Our national debt, at the time of this writing, is roughly $16.7 trillion. In light of that stratospheric figure, the amount of money we give to other countries is jaw-dropping, the amount we spend on ridiculous pet projects and wasteful bureaucracy mind-numbing. The solution is so obvious it’s painful: just stop the flow of cash. What’s the problem, Congress?
In spite of the simplicity of the problem, the solution is complex. Of course we need to persuade our leaders that cutting spending is indeed the problem, but sometimes the only way to do that is to force them to walk their talk. However, finding the best places to apply pressure to the politicians in charge of the federal purse strings can be a tricky, multi-faceted undertaking.
Many people point to the excess of lobbyists and “special interests,” wh0se deep pockets project their siren call towards the capitol. With such large sums of cash tempting politicians, remaining committed to the common sense reforms they talk about in front of the cameras can be difficult. The obvious solution to this problem would be to severely restrict lobbying.
But what if it’s your organization that’s the one doing the lobbying? Doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore, does it?
Okay, so how about we limit the ability of lobbyists to throw cash at politicians? Now we’re cooking with gas, right? If only. That would raise this important question about First Amendment: Is money speech? Consider this quote from University of Chicago professor Geoffrey R. Stone:
Even though an object may not itself be speech, if the government regulates it because it is being used to enable free speech it necessarily raises a First Amendment issue. Thus, a law that prohibits political candidates to spend money to pay for the cost of printing leaflets, or that forbids individuals to contribute to their favorite political candidates to enable them to buy airtime to communicate their messages, directly implicates the First Amendment. Such laws raise First Amendment questions, not because money is speech, but because the purpose of the expenditure or contribution is to facilitate expression.
Professor Stone’s opinion doesn’t touch on aggregated money, such as that spent by PACs or corporations, but the principle is still there. If one person can give money towards a cause, why can’t people pool their funds to flex some extra muscle?
My opinion on this is simple, if idealistic: If politicians had any integrity anyway, we wouldn’t have to worry about external funding of any kind weakening their resolve to do the right thing. Ergo, we have greater problems than a severe financial deficit. We have an even more severe character deficit. But then, if being in power didn’t sow a field ripe for corruption, then the Constitution wouldn’t require limits on power.
Have we reached a point where we need to put limits on people’s monetary freedom in order to keep politicians honest? To borrow George Bush’s terminology, do we need to abandon our commitment to freedom of speech (in this case, lobbyists’ speech) in order to maintain financial sovereignty as a nation (in other words, to keep from going broke)?
I say no. A corrupt nation is doomed to fail at some point anyway. The cost to liberty isn’t worth the trade.