“Issue Ads” and Common Sense

The Atlantic

Eight Supreme Court justices spent an hour on April 25 arguing with three lawyers and one another about the constitutionality of the federal regulation governing political advertising by nonprofit advocacy corporations. But all nine justices and all three lawyers missed what, I respectfully submit, should be the point of the case. They should be focusing on how Congress rigged the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law to protect its own members from criticism by their constituents.

In a nutshell, the problem with the Court’s approach to the 2002 law’s ban on so-called sham issue ads by nonprofit advocacy corporations is that the justices are focusing on the word "corporations" when they should be focusing on "nonprofit."

A typical issue ad might say something like "tell Senator Jones to stop filibustering judicial nominees," or "tell Senator Jones to vote for reproductive choice." Groups paying to air such ads almost always want the targeted lawmaker to vote as urged or to be defeated in the next election—or both. Seeking to determine which purpose predominates—the focus of the current debate—is a mug’s game.

McCain-Feingold’s ban on such issue ads has been touted as necessary to keep big, bad corporations and labor unions from pouring money into election campaigns. Corporations and unions have long been banned from doing this directly, through contributions to candidates, and should not be allowed to do it indirectly either, the argument goes.

So far, so good. It would distort the democratic process to allow Fortune 500 CEOs and union bosses to spend large sums of stockholders’ and members’ money to support candidates whom the stockholders and members might not choose to support. There is no First Amendment right to spend someone else’s money on electioneering ads.

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