January 27, 2010
How to Counter Corporate Speech; Every American should get a $50 tax credit to donate to a candidate—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67 and David Wu
The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 27, 2010.
How to Counter Corporate Speech; Every American should get a $50 tax credit to donate to a candidate.
By Bruce Ackerman ’67 and David Wu
The Supreme Court's decision last week in Citizens United v. FEC fundamentally changed the nature of political campaigns. In a 5-4 ruling, the court held that corporations have a constitutional right to spend millions of dollars in independent campaigns that attack or support particular candidates.
Critics of the decision worry, with good reason, that corporate interests might now exhibit outsize influence on campaigns.
We need to embrace a market solution to this problem. The answer to the disproportionate influence of big money is to give ordinary citizens the financial capacity to compete effectively in the political marketplace.
The place to begin is with a tax cut. Each American should get a refundable federal tax credit of $50 that they can use to make contributions to federal candidates during presidential years, and a suitably smaller sum during off-year federal elections.
Each American should be allowed to claim a $50 refundable tax credit when filing an income tax return. Oregon and other states already do this. It's time to bring this plan to the rest of the nation.
Modern technology provides opportunities for enhanced convenience and access. Donations to campaigns could be made electronically, with the money automatically refunded to each citizen's credit card or bank account. Call these electronic transfers "democracy dollars."
About 120 million Americans went to the polls in 2008. If each citizen also had a chance to contribute democracy dollars, their donations would overwhelm the sums that corporations are likely to spend under the recent Supreme Court decision.
Under our initiative, candidates will find new rewards by appealing to mainstream interests. If they effectively express the concerns of ordinary people, citizens could respond by sending millions of democracy dollars in their direction. Despite the new financial power granted to corporations, Americans would gain a renewed sense that they could make a difference in politics.
Democracy dollars would allow ordinary Americans to fight back against big money without raising any prospect of a Supreme Court counterattack. It's far too soon to say whether the court's recent decision is just the first shot in a much bigger war on traditional campaign-finance regulation; this will be determined by the new appointments to the bench over the next decade.
But one thing is clear: Even if the court moves more to the right, it will have a very hard time striking down democracy dollars. Our proposal simply doesn't raise the classic First Amendment objection that the justices have used to strike down traditional campaign reform. The court's problem with statutes like McCain-Feingold is that they restrict the flow of private and corporate money. Since less money means less speech, the majority looks upon such limitations with skepticism.
Democracy dollars, by contrast, promise more speech and therefore more political competition. Our initiative enhances First Amendment values by encouraging more citizen participation. It reinforces the marketplace of ideas with a marketplace of small donations.
There is already legislation pending in Congress—H.R. 726, the Citizen Involvement in Campaigns Act—proposing a refundable tax credit. But it must be improved to allow the federal government to work with banks and credit card companies to create the electronic infrastructure needed for a user-friendly and fraud-proof system.
Democracy dollars is no panacea. It does not promise a political utopia purged of special interests. It simply allows ordinary Americans to compete effectively with corporations, giving them a realistic chance to shape the political debate long before they cast their ballots in November.
Mr. Ackerman is a professor of law at Yale. Mr. Wu is a Democratic congressman from Oregon.