WHEN BRIBERY IS CALLED FREE SPEECH
From a speech by San Smith at a US Capitol rally, 1999:
I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.
The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.
This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip. . . I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."
For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary described it in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.
In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.
But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.
The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."
Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.
My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.
A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.
Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.
This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.
The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.
My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.
Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.
Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.
Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.
I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.
If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.
At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.