A Corporate Full-Body Scan

Originally posted on January 28 at Dirt Diggers Digest.

The one redeeming feature of the abominable Supreme Court ruling
on corporate electoral expenditures is the majority's retention of the
rules on disclaimers and disclosure. While opening the floodgates to
unlimited business political spending, the Court at least recognizes
that the public has a right to know when a corporation is responsible
for a particular message and a right to information on a corporation's
overall spending.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy states: "The First
Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens
and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a
proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed
decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

There's no question that steps must be taken to mitigate the
Citizens United ruling, whether through changes in corporation law,
shareholder pressure, enhanced public financing of elections, or even a
Constitutional amendment.

Yet while these efforts progress, it is also worth taking advantage
of the Court's affirmation of the principle of transparency and push
for even greater disclosure than what we have now. Groups such as the
Sunlight Foundation are already moving in this direction.

The effort could begin with pressing the Federal Election Commission
to tighten the existing reporting rules on what are known as "electioneering communications" and to enforce them more diligently.  But that's not enough.

In the wake of Citizens United, we've got to demand more information
on the many ways corporations exercise undue influence not only on
elections but also on legislation, policymaking and public discourse in
general. Now that Big Business is a much bigger threat to popular
democracy, we have to subject corporations to intensive full-body scans
to find all their hidden weapons of persuasion. The following are some
of the areas to consider.

Lobbying. In his State of the Union Address,
President Obama said that lobbyists should be required to disclose
every contact with the executive branch or Congress. That's fine, but
why stop there? Many corporations do their lobbying indirectly, through
trade associations which disclose little about their sources of
funding. How about rules that require those associations to disclose
the fees paid by each of their members and require publicly traded
companies to disclose exactly how much they pay to belong to each of
their various associations?

Front Groups. Corporations also indirectly seek to
influence legislation and public opinion by bankrolling purportedly
independent non-profit advocacy groups. Such front groups-such as those
taking money from fossil-fuel energy producers to deny the reality of
the climate crisis-do not have to publicly disclose their contributor
lists. Why not require publicly traded companies, at least, to reveal
all of their payments to such organizations?

Union-Busting. Encouragement of collective
bargaining is still, in theory, official federal policy. Yet many
companies violate the principle-and the rights of their workers-by
using corporate funds to undermine union organizing campaigns. The
existing rules on the disclosure of expenditures on anti-union
"consultants" are too narrow and not vigorously enforced. That should
change.

These are only a few of the ways that undue political influence and
other forms of anti-social corporate behavior could be addressed
through better disclosure. Yet, as we've seen, transparency by itself
does not counteract corporate power unless something is done with the
information.

This came to mind in reading the last portion of the Citizens United
ruling. Not all five Justices in the majority went along with the idea
of maintaining the disclaimer and disclosure rules. Parting with
Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas argued not only that
corporate independent expenditures should be unrestricted, but also
that they should be allowed to take place under a veil of secrecy.

He bases his argument not on legal precedent, but rather on dubious
anecdotal evidence that some supporters of California's
anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 were subjected to threats of violence
after their names appeared on public donor lists. Thomas thus suggests
that corporations should be able to make their political expenditures
anonymously to avoid retaliation.

While I am in no way advocating violence, I think activists need to
use the information that becomes public as the result of expanded
disclosure to make corporations pay a price for any attempts to buy our
political system. If we can get them to worry about (non-violent)
retaliation to the point that they limit their expenditures, then we
will have gone a long way toward neutralizing the pernicious effects of
the Citizens United ruling.

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics