State legislators – more precisely, Democratic legislators – worked themselves into a lather last month over what one called “the pernicious and pervasive role of money in politics.”
Those words came from Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, as he presented a bill that, if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would place an advisory measure on the November ballot, calling on officeholders “to use all of their constitutional authority” to overturn the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 2010 decision invalidated federal restrictions on so-called “independent expenditures” in campaigns, allowing corporations, associations, unions and other entities to, in essence, spend as much money as they want.
The author of the majority opinion, Californian Anthony Kennedy, saw it as a free speech issue, declaring, “If the 1st Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
Underscoring that position, the American Civil Liberties Union blessed the ruling.
Since then, however, Citizens United has become a political shibboleth, particularly among Democrats from President Barack Obama downward who call for repeal, either by a court or via constitutional amendment.
“This is not just another issue,” Allen’s co-author, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, added before the 26-12 vote on Senate Bill 254. “This is fundamental.”
Citizens United, Leno continued, “conflicts with every notion of what a democracy can be and should be.”
SB 254 is not the first effort to place the issue before voters. An earlier bill was held up by a court battle over whether advisory issues should be placed on the ballot, and it took a state Supreme Court decision to make it happen.
Allen, Leno and other California politicians may decry Citizens United as an assault on democracy. Brown said much the same thing when he allowed the earlier version to become law without his signature.
But there is a huge flaw in that posture – hypocrisy.
Citizens United merely aligned federal campaign finance law with what has been California’s law and practice vis-à-vis independent expenditures for many years.
In fact, California’s law is even more accommodating to corporate interests because it, unlike federal law, allows them to make direct contributions to politicians.
Moreover, California politicians who denounce Citizens United have not been shy about accepting direct corporate contributions themselves, or benefiting from independent expenditures that support their campaigns and attack their opponents.
Allen, for example, has already raised nearly a quarter-million dollars for his 2018 re-election campaign, much of it from corporate and professional organizations.
There has been a huge growth in independent expenditures in California campaigns over the last couple of decades, but that’s largely because the Legislature itself voted to limit direct contributions to candidates, thereby encouraging outside spending.
By the way, as Democratic legislators were shedding crocodile tears over Citizens United last month, their leaders were quietly killing several bills that would have tightened up California’s own campaign finance laws, including one aimed at Board of Equalization members’ practice of taking money from those with pending tax cases.
In other words, do as we say, not as we do.