Bethel Hosts Chamber of Commerce Panel Discussion
Bethel University was host to a Carroll County Chamber of Commerce Panel Discussion on Thursday, Nov. 15 that focused on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case and on the opportunities and challenges the decision has presented.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The nonprofit group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts in apparent violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as the McCain–Feingold Act or "BCRA"). In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that portions of BCRA §203 violated the First Amendment.
The decision reached the Supreme Court on appeal from a July 2008 decision by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Section 203 of BCRA defined an "electioneering communication" as a broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, and prohibited such expenditures by corporations and unions. The lower court held that §203 of BCRA applied and prohibited Citizens United from advertising the film Hillary: The Movie in broadcasts or paying to have it shown on television within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. The Supreme Court reversed, striking down those provisions of BCRA that prohibited corporations (including nonprofit corporations) and unions from spending on "electioneering communications."
The decision overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003). The Court, however, upheld requirements for public disclosure by sponsors of advertisements (BCRA §201 and §311).
Panelists for the discussion included the Honorable Judge Holly Kirby, a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals; Jim Brown, the Tennessee State Director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Brad Hurley, Carroll County Chamber Director; Allan Ramsaur, Executive Director of the Tennessee Bar Association; and Ed Lancaster, General Counsel for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. Moderator was Rick Vaughn, Associate Athletic Director at Bethel.
Each panelist was given a five-minute time period to point out opportunities and challenges of the Citizens United decision and to pose possible solutions.
Judge Kirby began the discussion by pointing out that the Tennessee legislature is a citizen legislature where legislators are part time and must support themselves in other vocational endeavors. Judge Kirby also brought up the point that when she was a child, the legislature met for shorter periods of time and legislators had more time to run the businesses that provided their financial support.
“When you combine the rigors of how long legislators now meet with fundraising and the time spent to keep their own personal financial endeavors operating, the demands for being a legislator are exponential,” Judge Kirby said.
Judge Kirby also went on to say that legislators need a certain background and life experiences to be able to make wise legislative decisions.
“It seems that the legislature benefits from having lawyers because they can anticipate how legislation will play out in the real world,” she said.
Judge Kirby said the same was true for business owners who brought important real life experience to the job.
Judge Kirby pointed out that under Citizens United, for a relatively small amount of money, a single interest group can make a huge impact on a race.
“It shrinks the pool of candidates,” she said. “Tennessee will suffer if business leaders and lawyers do not run.”
Judge Kirby offered three steps toward capitalizing on the opportunities presented by Citizens United.
“First, there should be talks among business groups and with bar associations (both urban and rural) to see if a consensus can be reached for specific candidates,” she said.
“Second, there need to be talks to change the culture of how we decide on a candidate,” she said. “This culture needs to be to support the people chosen while they are serving. The Tennessee Bar Association does a good job of this when lawyers take on pro bono cases. There should be recognition that serving in the legislature is a high calling, and if someone takes this calling on, he or she must be supported.”
“Finally,” she said, “when an open seat comes up, these groups should not wait for political parties to look for candidates, but instead these groups should identify candidates with a rich knowledge of business and law.”
The next panelist, Jim Brown with the NFIB said he agreed with a lot of what Judge Kirby said.
“I actually think we are seeing really good folks come into the legislature,” Brown said.
“Citizens United didn’t fundamentally change things, but it did give us freedom to educate voters on where candidates are. Before, we were very restricted.”
Brown said, “I will take the contrarian view to Judge Kirby. I think business owners already want to run for office. Right now, one-third of Tennessee’s legislators are small business owners.”
Carroll County Chamber Director Brad Hurley used his time to pose questions.
“How do we recalibrate our thinking so that compromise is not a bad word?” he asked.
“How do we elect an official and not have it be about one issue?”
“And how do we get voters to invest in the legislative process? Said Hurley.
Allan Ramsaur with the Tennessee Bar Association said there are more insurance salesmen in the Tennessee State Legislature than there are lawyers.
“We lawyers think lawyers can do a good job. We are trained to see both sides of an issue and anticipate the consequences,” he said.
“On this topic, I do think there are encouraging signs out there, and I think we also have to recognize that voters are not tricked by deep pockets who run negative ad campaigns. Just having the money advantage does not mean you have the advantage,” Ramsaur said.
Ramsaur said he did not think permanent coalitions could be formed.
“There are plenty of times we do agree, so I think issues are a common ground. You don’t really even have to have a majority. Seventy-thirty is still a compromise. Each group is having to give up something,” he said.
“My group’s role is to advocate legislation for our concerns,” said Ed Lancaster with the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. “We don’t endorse anyone, and we don’t have PAC money.
“A lobbyist’s job is to inform legislators on how a bill will affect constituents,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster went on to remind those at the panel discussion that their role was very important.
“Don’t forget. The legislators work for you so take advantage of that,” he said.