Supreme Court Ruling Is an Invitation to Scandal

Corruption and outrage will follow; transparency is the solution.

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By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The justices on the Supreme Court have declared that Congress cannot ban corporations from spending whatever they want to buy elected officials.

The libertarian and First Amendment purist in me applauds the decision. The political reporter in me, who watched my country's capital become a sleazy and corrupt bazaar even with campaign spending laws, is feeling pretty nauseous.

Republican Party leaders and their allies at the Chamber of Commerce cheered the decision, which overturned years of precedent, and was delivered by Republican judges a year after the Democrats captured Washington and set out to pass new regulations on Wall St., corporate polluters, big oil, and the health insurance industry. Conveniently, the GOP will have corporate allies with cash galore to spend in the fall elections.

Tell me it's possible to be too cynical about this Supreme Court decision. Explain why this is not Bush v. Gore redux.

But Republicans should be careful of what they wish for. In the long term, if the GOP turns its back on working- and middle-class families and the populists of the Tea Party movement and resumes its historic romance with banks and energy companies and Wall St. firms oozing dollars (and panicky Democrats follow suit) there will be huge political scandals, and a serious populist reaction. Much of the anger on today's political scene is not ideological--it's rage at the elites, and how Washington won't work for the average guy and gal.

Hey Glenn. Hey Rush. Hey Rachel. Hey Keith. Hey Jon. If you really mean all that you say, try on this chilling quote from the New York Times.

"We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you — whichever one you want," a lobbyist can tell lawmakers.

Oh, yes. There will be many brave men and women who will tell the lobbyists and corporate moneybags, "Keep your filthy cash. I stand with the People." Sure there will.

As we contemplate this new era there are a few things that Congress can require, and all citizens--from Move Onners to Tea Partiers--should insist upon. The first is absolute transparency.

There is no reason, in the Internet age, to not have instantaneous and complete campaign finance reporting--enforced by huge punitive fines and jail time for individuals--available in real time on the Web.

If these harlots on the Hill are going to sell themselves to Citibank (or the NRA or ACORN) the happy buyers should have to post the transaction--on-line, as it's happening, not four weeks later or after the election--so that watchdog groups, bloggers, news reporters and opposition research teams can alert us.

We should demand full disclosure--and not just of corporate campaign money. We will need to keep an instant eye on personal wealth, lobbying expenditures and other revealing tidbits. No more paper filings, hidden in the bowels of buildings in Washington. No more hiding behind phony PAC names or 527 organizations or Swift Boat groups. No more leaving the "occupation" or address lines blank on campaign spending reports.

And that includes you, Justice Kennedy. The investments and holdings and speaking fees and trips of Supreme Court justices, White House aides, top Congressional staffers and their families should never be more than a convenient mouse click away. I want to know who buys your every meal.

Transparency will help. Investigative reporters and groups like Common Cause just got new leases on life. But ultimately, the only way out--short of a Constitutional Amendment--will be free air time. The public owns it, and we lease it out to commercial interests. There is no reason why we should not insist that the purveyors of television, radio and wireless frequencies give us free space for free speech, awarded in a way that at least tries to neutralize the advantage of deep-pocketed corrupting interests.

We can revive the FEC, and spruce up the campaign finance system. But the old way of buying restraint, by offering public money to candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits, won't do it any more, now that any pharmaceutical firm or insurance company can drop a few million in the congressional race of their choice. Our most valuable public asset is now our air time. It is time to take it back, and use it to keep Free Speech free.

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