Pandora’s Ballot Box


As a corporation that is afforded tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, the St. Louis Jewish Light is prohibited from endorsing or opposing a candidate for public office. So if someone runs, for instance, on an anti-Israel platform, we can’t recommend that you vote against him.

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On the other hand, thanks to last week’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court, an American contractor that does major business with Israel’s sworn enemy nations can now spend unlimited sums trashing a candidate who is aligned with Israel’s interests.

In what was an amazing and blatant disregard of legal history, the so-called conservative majority on the Court has undone over a century of law and in the process has put the entire makeup of election campaigning in this country in serious jeopardy.

The decision last week, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, essentially allows any corporation or labor union to spend as much money as it wants to promote or attempt to destroy a political candidate. The Court determined that such entities are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as individuals.

In a case involving a video that slammed then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Court overturned well-established law that precluded such direct involvement by corporations in the political process. Still standing, for now, are laws that limit these entities from making direct contributions to candidates.

But the impact of Citizens United is profound. A corporation that believes a candidate in its home district is unsympathetic to its business interests can choose to spend countless dollars opposing that candidate’s election. Or alternately, it can devote abundant resources to promote the retention of the incumbent who might be in the company’s hip pocket.

It is frustrating enough, as the dissenters in Citizens United stated, that elections are likely to become the purview of the most monied interests. This is exactly the opposite direction from which Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain wanted to take the nation with their campaign reform measures. They both expressed serious disappointment with the Court’s ruling. And President Barack Obama has criticized the outcome as well. There is already talk that members of Congress will work before the 2010 midterm elections to find prohibitions that will stick constitutionally before this Court.

And yet, as of today, the Jewish Light and nonprofit media like it are hamstrung. The Internal Revenue Service says that to receive and maintain tax-exempt status, we cannot support or oppose candidates in any public election in this country. It is questionable whether the IRS status quo will survive, once nonprofits in the Light’s shoes see fit to challenge the existing regulations. Neither for-profit companies, nor certain tax-exempt organizations such as labor unions, are any longer prohibited from direct support or opposition of candidates. On what possible grounds can the proscription on the rest of us remain?

Nevertheless, even with the prospect of a ban lifted for all nonprofits, including us, we’re fairly well troubled by both the process and result of this complete 180-degree turn by the Court. Procedurally, the decision underscores dramatically that this Court majority, most of whom constantly preach at the altar of judicial restraint, clearly only believes in restrictive rulings when they are politically favorable to their beliefs. (Chief Justice John Roberts, who in his confirmation hearings talked about the Court being an institution that should just “call balls and strikes,” wrote a concurring opinion trying to slough off these concerns, but the content is unpersuasive and the tone is defensive.)

The substantive result is equally concerning. Those companies or interest groups with the most money will undoubtedly have the loudest and most far-reaching voice. And if the IRS rules are eventually challenged successfully, pulpits, where aggressive religious leaders have already tested the limits of IRS restrictions, could become the home of a constant barrage of political endorsements and objections.

Do you want to go to synagogue to hear your rabbi tell you for whom to vote? (We’re guessing probably not). Will Christian evangelicals preach to their congregants that electing a Muslim candidate is a desecration of religious duty? And how will this work within vertically integrated religious organizations — will the Catholic Church pour out its resources nationally to recommend for or against specific candidates?

The upshot of Citizens United is on balance pretty darn bad. Expect candidates, especially incumbents, to become more beholden to monied interests; louder corporate voices to blare at you on the eve of elections; and potentially, if the 501(c)(3) limits are overturned, religious groups to more aggressively mix religion with politics.

Given this ominous landscape, we would have preferred previously existing law, even with continuing prohibitions on our political voice. But if everyone else has the right to do it, so should we. We have an obligation to speak up on behalf of issues affecting Jews, including the safety and prosperity of Israel, and if other louder, richer entities can oppose candidates who support Jewish interests, then by golly, why can’t we endorse those same candidates?

After all, what’s sauce for the golden goose should be sauce for the meager gander.