One of the planks in the Ogden Ethics Project platform is to ban direct campaign contributions to candidates from corporations (including other business entities and unions). Utahns for Ethical Government advocates a similar restriction for state legislative candidates. But is such a restriction constitutional?
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on independent political expenditures by corporate entities, ruling in the Citizens United case that such a ban violates the First Amendment protection of free speech. At the same time, however, the Court explicitly recognized earlier precedent upholding the existing ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates.
Yesterday, however, a federal district judge issued a ruling that extended the Citizens United conclusion to direct corporate contributions. If such a ruling is upheld at higher levels, it could spell trouble for all attempts to ban these contributions.
There are two problems with allowing corporations, other business entities, and unions to contribute to political candidates:
- These entities don’t contribute out of mere generosity or public spirit. As organizations they expect something tangible in return for their contributions, and that makes their contributions hard to distinguish from bribes.
- Contributors can use business entities to avoid disclosing their names or to evade contribution limits, either contributing through entities that they already control or setting up sham entities that merely launder contributions for this purpose.
These problems have already occurred in Ogden, and they are sure to recur if Ogden doesn’t put tighter restrictions in place.
As for yesterday’s court decision, it fortunately won’t have any effect over the short term. If this or a similar ruling is eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, it will overturn a century of precedent on campaign finance reform in the United States. That seems unlikely but if it does happen, we’ll let national-level organizations take the lead in sorting out the new law and devising strategies to deal with it.