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Experts and Students Debate Corporate Spending in Political Campaigns

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

November 11, 2010

Boston, Mass. – Two teams of experts and students squared off in a debate last night at Boston University, with one side arguing that corporate spending increases engagement in the political process, while the other warned that it could lead politicians to govern under corporate influence.

The 28th Great Debate, held at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center, was sponsored by the university’s College of Communication and focused on the question: “Does the infusion of corporate money into political campaigns threaten the integrity of the American Political System?”

Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, argued against allowing corporate spending in political campaigns, saying that corporations already had enough say in politics through indirect means, such as contributions made by individual executives, donations to political action committees, or the funding of issue ads.

Mann’s concern, he said, is “politicians, fearful of a corporate, independent campaign against them, becoming even less independent and more solicitous of corporate interests.”

Allison R. Hayward, the lead speaker for the opposing side, said the real threat to America’s political system is a lack of engagement and said allowing more spending can increase voter participation.

“The real threat to the integrity in our elections comes from aiming of the rules by incumbents in Congress,” said Hayward, adding that campaign finance laws may be driven by political motivations rather than actual need for regulation.  Hayward serves as vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics.

The debate has been moderated by Bob Zelnick, a professor of journalism at Boston University, since 1999.  In his welcome to the crowd, Zelnick noted the timeliness of the topic, with the midterm elections taking place last week, and January’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, striking down the rules prohibiting corporate political spending.

Graham Wilson, a professor of political science at Boston University, argued alongside Mann, saying that corporations don’t qualify as regular citizens because they can’t volunteer for the armed forces or go to prison.

Wilson said he thought it was nearly impossible for politicians to ask for money from corporations during a campaign and not expect to be under corporate influence when it comes time to govern.

He also said he’d rather see corporations pay for informed television debates instead of negative attack ads, which he said dampen voter turnout, drawing shouts of, “Hear, hear” from a few crowd members.

John Samples, who directs the Center for Responsive Government at the Cato Institute, said corporations are still restricted from contributing directly to candidates, campaigns and political parties.

After the debate, Samples disputed Wilson’s take on negative ads, saying that negative ads have actually been shown to increase voter turnout and inform the least-informed voters.  He went on to say, “You can’t go around making laws saying you can’t say negative things.”

James Robinson, a master’s journalism student, siding with Hayward and Samples, pointed to recent elections across the country in which candidates with more money lost, saying that funding is less important in political campaigns than effective mobilization of voters.

Austin Bay, a junior studying political science and international affairs, echoed many of the arguments made by his teammates, Mann and Wilson, but warned that since many corporations are international, allowing corporate spending could really lead to foreign influence on American elections.

The six debaters took turns at a center-stage podium, addressing a half-capacity crowd of about 250, mostly composed of students spread out on the first floor and balcony.

After each member of the team presented initial arguments, Zelnick, dressed in academic robes for the occasion, asked for audience contributions.  Six students addressed the crowd from microphones in the aisles, but only one student spoke against restrictions on corporate spending.

Jordan Smith, a third-year law student at Boston University, said he saw “some degree of value in all speech,” but later said the First Amendment “is not categorical” because there have always been limits on speech in certain instances.

Zelnick asked the audience to vote at the end—the majority sided with the debaters supporting limits on corporate spending.

Afterward, Zelnick said, the participants would be treated to “a noble feast at a good local restaurant.”

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