Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I never bought a man who wasn't for sale

Will Clark
A handsome chap, no?
Reality TV is educational.

I was watching Pawn Stars (That's "pawn", Jonny, not "porn") recently and a gentleman brought in an ink well in the shape of a gavel. This ink well reportedly belonged to a William A. Clark. Clark it turns out was a wealthy guy at the turn of the last century who liked to buy politicians to further his business objectives. He bought influence from Las Vegas to Butte.

Clark is probably most notorious for his purchase of one of Montana's U.S. Senate seats in 1899 through outright bribery of several state legislators (who at that time were responsible for selecting Senators). Once this was revealed Congress refused to seat him though he was subsequently elected by popular vote once the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed.

Mark Twain thought highly of the man:
"He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed's time."
Perhaps Clark's greatest gift to us all was the dawning realization that money and politics don't mix very well. So, limitations were eventually put on political financial contributions by both individuals and organizations. No where were these lessons better learned than in Montana; they have had some of the most stringent campaign finance laws in the Union.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in the Citizen's United v FEC case that corporations were entitled to the same free speech protections that individuals enjoy. The rationale goes something like this: Corporations are assemblies of people, people shouldn't have their free speech rights abridged, therefore neither should assemblies of such people in the form of business corporations even if those corporations were formed for the sole purpose of influencing elections.

But why do companies need a voice? If they're assemblies of people, surely the voice of the people is sufficient. But apparently not.

Citizens United changed what corporations were allowed to have a voice on. Previously, they could produce issues advertisements but not directly put their resources behind a specific candidate. Now corporations can directly advocate for specific candidates.

So, instead of putting an ad out that says something like "Unregulated mining creates good jobs for Americans", organizations like Citizens for Patriotic Blue-Blooded Mineral Extraction or, say, The Pebble Limited Partnership can now put out an ad that says "Bob Smith is bad for America cause he supports mining regulation. Vote for Sally Johnson."

Citizens United erased the line between people and non-people in the most fundamental human area of our democracy -- the vote.

And that brings us back to Montana and Billy Clark's legacy.

Due to Montana's history of political corruption they have had strict campaign finance laws including one prohibiting companies from contributing to political campaigns. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (summarily, by the way, without any oral arguments or facts presented) in American Tradition Partnership v Montana that the Citizens United case trumps the state law and therefore the American Tradition Partnership can support or oppose any Montana candidate it wishes.

The majority opinion from Citizens United stated:
"independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and therefore "[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations."
Unlimited, "independent" money spent on political campaigns neither corrupts nor has the appearance of corruption. Phew, what a relief.

Justice Stevens argued in the dissenting opinion that:
"These legal entities, he argued, have perpetual life, the ability to amass large sums of money, limited liability, no ability to vote, no morality, no purpose outside of profit-making, and no loyalty. Therefore, he argued, the courts should permit legislatures to regulate corporate participation in the political process."
Doesn't seem unreasonable. Corporations are different from people in some easily definable ways.

But the decision was the opposite. Corporations have the sames rights as people from the perspective of supporting political aspirants.

So what the hell does this have to do with conservation or fly fishing? It's not yet clear. I do know a few corporations that aren't very fond of regulation and regulation is the life blood of conservation; maybe they'll want their voice heard.

In this election cycle eyes will be on the results of Sheldon and Miriam Adelson's donations. They've already put $20 million on Republican Presidential candidates and will put another $51M into other conservative organizations.

If Governor Romney wins and implements new pro-Israel or anti-union programs, key Adelson issues, then we'll have an important data point on the influence of independent money on politician's behavior. If Governor Romney wins and ignores the desires of wealthy donors, then the court's majority opinion will be affirmed (same for if he loses).

I just can't imagine any politician ignoring the desires of a large donor regardless of whether that money is given directly to their campaign or is independent as in the case of the Adelsons. I also worry about how this plays out on the local and state levels where money for candidates is a lot more scarce and far more welcome.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out. Hopefully it won't be too painful.


  1. Excellent write up, Steve. And here's to hoping...

    1. Thanks, Erin. It's been an issue on my mind for a while and now that things are heating up we're going to begin to see activity driven by all that money in the system. Of course, what influence it will have on the electorate, and thus the candidates, is the great unknown.

  2. Steve, I also applaud you for this post. Well done! At my age, all I can do is cross my fingers!

  3. Nice job Steve. Mel, don't cross anything you won't be able to uncross them!!!

  4. I really think that corporation is a Muslim. Nothing you say will change my mind.

    1. It's definitely something other than what it purports to be.

  5. As a new person to CT, I had my fishing license and voter registration with 24 hours of obtaining my drivers license. I will be active on the stream and in the voting both this fall.

    1. That's what it takes, participation on both the river and booth.

  6. Great post! More often than not, the realization of power brings greed and corruption. I'd sure like to be proven wrong.

  7. I can't wait until we see the candidates wearing suits adorned with the patches of their corporate sponsors...might actually make it easier to vote. It's actually the same way in which I pick my favorite nascar driver...hey! there goes the m&m car...go m&m's!