Viser arkivet for august, 2012

It's the money, stupid.

Over to sider i Bergens Tidende kan du i dag lese om de få personene som står for store deler av finansieringen av årets USA-valg. I den anledning legger jeg ut en liten oppsummering av saken som jeg skrev i DC i sommer.

Citizens United v Federal Election Commission

Who’s Citizens United and why do they matter?
Citizens United is a non-profit organization, and it describes itself as dedicated to restoring the citizens’ control over the US government, and to «assert American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security.»

They make it easy to place them in the conservative camp of US politics, and to underscore that point, they have previously aired ads in attacking John McCain as being «surprisingly liberal». Citizens United wanted to air a movie about the then frontrunner to be the democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. The movie was, of course, attacking her candidacy.

Their wish to air it was denied by due to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold Act, where broadcasted advertisement mentioning a candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election was illegal.

Citizens United was itself a plaintiff in a 2004 case against Michael Moore, where they argued that advertisements for his movie «Fahrenheit 9/11» was in fact political advertising aimed to target President George W. Bush.

After the FEC dismissed the claim, Citizens United wanted to make a similar type of political documentary. That led to «Hillary: The Movie», which was described as a prolonged version of a TV-ad by the District Court. As Fahrenheit 9/11 had been ruled as legal and «Hillary: The movie» was not, Citizens United decided to challenge it in the court system.

The Supreme Court took the case, and in 2010 they ruled that parts of the McCain-Feingold Act was unconstitutional.

How does this relate to interests groups?
In short, the case is about the use of money for political purposes. Should it be legal for an interest group to gather money and spend it on the making and screening of a movie aimed to support or denounce a specific candidate?

If so, it would’ve been a massive deregulation of political advertisement, in which of course, increases the playing field for interests groups. If «money equals speech», then interests groups would be very interested. It’s all about the money.

Corporate personhood
One of the consequenses of this case, was the continuation of the practice that interest groups, including corporations, have the same rights as people.

That practice started in 1819, when corporations were given the same rights as individuals to make and enforce contracts. The Equal Protection Act sanctioned in the Fourteenth Amendment was in 1886 stated to also cover corporations. Now, with the Citizens United ruling, corporations are protected by the First Amendment.

The result has been the establishment of Super-PACs, a sort of political action committee separated from the official campaign. While the campaign has limits on how much donors can contribute, these Super-PACs have not.

The never-ending debate: Is money good or bad?
Is the act of spending your own money on political ideas or interests a lesser moral deed than to spend money to increase your own stockpile of materialistic wealth? And shouldn’t businesses and labor unions have the same right to influence?

During a talk with former presidential candidate for the Green Party, Ralph Nader, we heard his two main arguments on what’s problematic about US politics: First, the massive corporate influence on policies, and second, the fact that the US electorate is too little involved in politics. So why limit the one area where Americans are very active? Remember, Super-PAC money often come from individuals.

It is not that easy however. The general populace is not that active in political donations even if the aggregated dollars are high. When President Obama ran for office in 2008, he was the first to really take an advantage of the low-tier donations, such as $50. Previously, larger donations, closer to the then limit of $ 2 000 in the primaries and $2 000 in the general election was the dominating donation.

There is a real worry that US politics are moving in a more money-driven direction, giving interest groups more power. One can ask if the US has gone from «checks and balances» to «balanced checks» as the most important component of government and politics. The power of the political parties, however, will be reduced as a consequence. The Framers would like that, as they saw interest groups in a better light than they saw parties, where the latter only led to factions and a more polarized political debate.

Essay: Føderalisme i USA

Da jeg besøkte USA på et sommerseminar i år var en del av arbeidet å skrive essays om amerikansk politikk. Ett av de områdene der folk ofte misforstår amerikansk politikk, er når det kommer til føderalisme. Mens en i Norge har en enhetsstat uten lovbestemt lokalt selvstyre, har USA delstater med egne lover og myndighetsområder.

Statenes rettigheter kommer av grunnloven, og der ligger begrunnelsen mange i USA har for å legge ned det føderale utdanningsdepartementet. En er ikke imot å ha et utdanningsdepartement, en mener bare at det er en oppgave som hører hjemme hos delstatene, ikke hos føderalstaten. Utviklingen har likevel gått for det meste i en retning i USA, slik at føderalstaten får enda mer makt.

Mye av kritikken mot Obamas helselov finnes i denne konflikten, og det er kritikk jeg har sansen for. Delstatene burde ha denne makten, ikke politikerne i DC. Mye annet av kritikken er heller vanskelig å forsvare, men det er viktig å se føderalstatsdebatten når den dukker opp. I USA er ikke det like sjelden som vi har lokaldemokratidebatt i Norge.

Et av essayene jeg skrev var altså om dette temaet, og kan leses her:

States’ rights with increasing federal grants

The 10th Amendment to the United States clearly states that all «powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.» (1) That said, the federal government has increased it’s budgetary influence over the individual states, through federal grants and mandates. The act of channeling funds from the taxpayers straight to the federal government, and then redistribute it among the states, including eligibility threshold, gives the federal government great power in dictating state law and policy. The question could then be asked, if the autonomy of the individual states are compromised by these federal grant.

Federal grants also include support to individuals, where the federal government circumvene the states entirely. My focus for this essay, however, is the grants that are distributed from the federal government to the states, and to see how reliant the states are, and to briefly discuss the autonomy issue.

In his last State of the State address, Governor Schwarzenegger emphazised the importance of federal grants in California’s budget. He said that «Federal Funds have to be part of our budget solution, because the federal government is parti of our budget problem.» (2) He went on to list a number of states and how much they received from the federal government, compared to how much their taxpayers contributed. California only got 78 cents a dollar back, down from 94 cents in the Clinton era. Texas was at $0.94, Pennsylvania had a net income, with $1.04, the oil state of Alaska got $1.84, and finally New Mexico recieved $2.03 back for every dollar their citizens paid in federal taxes. Schwarzenegger’s speech didn`t touch the autonomy issue, but he clearly stated a fairness argument, and proved that California was dependent on getting a fairer share of the federal money.

There is an argument to be made that the federal government’s tax base is the same as the individual states’, and that the federal government collect funds that just as well could`ve been collected by the states themselves. Given the 10th Amendment, and the knowledge that these funds often come with some strings attached, there`s plenty of room to argue that the autonomy of the states is suffering, at least from a descriptive point of view. If this is normatively good or bad is a much different, and complex discussion.

In June 1987, The Supreme Court of the United States upheld a federal mandate on drinking age. (3) The mandate stated that states that wanted to receive the regular amount of federal funding for highways had to adopt legislations setting the legal drinking age at 21. It was South Dakota who challenged the mandate, and the dissenting opinion of two justices stated that this provision was not «reasonably related to the federal program.» The fear of long-term impact was great. If this mandate was upheld, what was to stop the federal government to dictate other parts of state laws? Here, the argument was not fairness of fiscal, but based in fear of losing autonomy, and an increasing centralization of power to Washington, DC.

So, when did this start? According to Jason Sorens, now Assistant Professor at the University of Buffalo, it started with the the great depression. (4) In 1927, he stated, local governments held 73 % of the revenue, and today`s it´s less than 40 %. He defines four other centralization periods, namely 1940-46, 1961-69, 1971-77 and 1991-95. These periods correlates with democrats holding the White House, with the exception of 1971-77. During Ronald Reagan`s presidency, a «new federalism» emerged, where he tried to return administrative powers to the state governments. However, according to Sorens’ numbers, the local revenue didn’t increase a whole lot during this time, but the reduction of local governments` share of the revenue was halted.

A strict interpretation of the Constitution, and the 10th Amendment, would be that all transfers of power and money from the states to the federal government is a reduction of autonomy. The federal government, as the Founding Fathers saw it, shouldn’t be too powerful. Today`s reality, however, is quite the opposite.