Yesterday a federal appeals court struck down a decades-old Wisconsin law limiting what individuals can give in a year to political action committees to $10,000. Reinforcing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case and extending the high court's money-is-speech doctrine, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the longstanding $10,000 limit violated the free speech rights of interest groups that sponsor their own political ads.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Diane Sykes wrote that interest group ads "do not pose a threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, which is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech."
It is naive in the extreme to believe that elected officials won't notice several hundred thousand or a few million dollars spent on campaign ads singing their praises. It is even more naive to think they won't appreciate the support of the friendly interest group that sponsored the ads. And it is as certain as the sunrise that such groups will be rewarded for their kindness.
What the court did yesterday was bless wink-and-nod corruption. Limits remain on the donations politicians can directly solicit. But after wealthy donors max out their contributions to candidates, they can give unlimited sums to special interest surrogates who will sponsor additional advertising touting those candidates. The candidates don't even need to ask. Everyone knows how the game is played. With a wink followed by a nod, the money flows to the right places, it's turned into a winning message, the anointed politicians are installed in office, and once handed power they direct all manner of favors back to those who paid for them to be there.
This is what the money-is-speech logic gets us. To call it logic strains the word's true meaning well beyond the breaking point. If logic leads to the conclusion that money equals speech, then the greatest infringement on First Amendment rights is poverty. Logic would demand that the miserable excuses for judges who gave us the Citizens United decision must now outlaw poverty since it violates free speech rights based on their own tortured interpretation of the First Amendment.
They won't do that, of course. They will never acknowledge that by ensuring the rich have unlimited "free speech" they also guarantee that those without much money will be silenced. They can't allow themselves to follow their legal reasoning to its logical conclusion. That would require them to start acting like judges and stop being tools of the 1%.