The Supreme Court decided that corporations are constitutionally protected by the first amendment. Everyone in Washington says they are upset about this and vow to fix it, even if many are secretly happy.

I find this situation particularly disturbing. The unofficial “4th branch of government” used to be the press, which was a good checks-and-balances fit. These days the independent investigative press is a shadow of its former self and the “4th branch” has been replaced with corporations via their lobbyists. There are no checks-and-balances here, neither in the selection of the candidate nor in the policy influencing.

Congress can’t prevent the corporate cash. So what can they do? They could tax it. They could add red tape. They could make disclosure rules that made the companies look bad. But these are all lame attempts at the same game. They could offer a constitutional amendment, but this is a huge deal and would never happen. They need a new approach – so here’s one:

A congressional ethics rule that a congressperson who accepts campaign funding from an entity other than an individual must recuse themselves from all votes that in any way might be considered a conflict of interest.

It is fairly save from legal scrutiny since it isn’t a law, just a congressional rule. Also it’s a natural fit that the courts should be able to accept since the courts already work this way. The only legal concern is extending the exception for the individual. Any attempt to grow that into the realm of nonprofit organizations of any type would muddy the waters and give the courts an excuse to parse and reject.

The rule doesn’t preclude any company from trying to give money, but it does put enormous pressure on the candidate to reject the offer. Neither party can afford to have anyone sitting on the sidelines of important votes, especially when the congress is split close to 50/50. The parties would quickly learn new tactics like adding small amendments to a bill that would force a few on the other side of the isle to sit out that vote. Any prospective nominee would be wipped by the party all the way back in the early primary process to keep that candidate clean.

Also note that this doesn’t prevent congresspersons from helping to craft a bill, sponsor the bill, offer amendments, debate, state their position on the record, or sit on committees; it just prevents voting.

With the sudden loss of most congressional campaign funding there may be a need for a new funding system. Congress can’t afford to look so crass with a self serving expenditure, and the states simply can’t afford the cash. The solution will be in more federal and state mandated free airtime. Some can be put on PBS but there will be push back from both national and local media owners.

This doesn’t fix any lobbying overreaching, but I think this is getting better. The disclosure rules have made a bit of a difference, and the new ethics rule will reduce the lobbyists bargaining position since they can’t threaten to pull campaign funding. Companies won’t be helpless, they can still do issue advertising, subject to all the new disclosure and other regulations. I don’t believe corporations should be cut out of governance completely, and this creates a better balance.

This ethics rule solves the congressional campaign funding issue, but does nothing for the executive. The president simply can’t recuse himself from policy making.  Another solution will be required here.

The problem with implementation is that incumbents like the imbalance of campaign cash. Unless this idea hits a grass roots fever pitch or is endorsed by the executive branch, I can’t see there being more than a couple of votes.