Tightening the Corporate Grip: The Stakes at the Supreme Court

Originally posted on 9 September at http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/09/09-11

Can things get still worse in Washington?

Yes, they can. And
they will, if the Supreme Court decides for corporations and against
real human beings and their democracy in a case the Court will be
hearing today, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Until
reaching the Supreme Court last year, this case has involved a narrow
issue about whether an anti-Hillary Clinton movie made in the heat of
the last presidential election is covered by restrictions in the
McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. However, in a highly unusual move
announced on the last day of the Supreme Court's 2008 term, the
justices announced they wanted to reconsider two other pivotal
decisions that limit the role of corporate money in politics.

The Court ordered a special oral argument on the issue, before the full start of their 2009 term in October.

The
Court will today hear argument on whether prior decisions blocking
corporations from spending their money on "independent expenditures"
for electoral candidates should be overturned. "Independent
expenditures" are funds spent without coordination with a candidate's
campaign. The rationale for such a move would be that existing rules
interfere with corporations' First Amendment rights to free speech.

Overturning
the court's precedents on corporate election expenditures would be
nothing short of a disaster. Corporations already dominate our
political process -- through political action committees, fundraisers,
high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders,
often bundled together to increase their impact, threats to move jobs
abroad and more.

On the dominant issues of the day -- climate
change, health care and financial regulation -- corporate interests are
leveraging their political investments to sidetrack vital measures to
protect the planet, expand health care coverage while controlling
costs, and prevent future financial meltdowns.

The current system
demands reform to limit corporate influence. Public funding of
elections is the obvious and necessary (though very partial) first step.

Yet
the Supreme Court may actually roll back the limits on corporate
electoral spending now in place. These limits are very inadequate, but
they do block unlimited spending from corporate treasuries to influence
election outcomes. Rolling back those limits will unleash corporations
to ramp up their spending still further, with a potentially decisive
chilling effect on candidates critical of the Chamber of Commerce
agenda.

The damage will be double, because a Court ruling on
constitutional grounds would effectively overturn the laws in place in
two dozen states similarly barring corporate expenditures on elections.

More
than 100 years ago, reacting to what many now call the First Gilded
Age, Congress acted to prohibit direct corporate donations to electoral
candidates. Corporate expenditures in electoral races have been
prohibited for more than 60 years.

These rules reflected the
not-very-controversial observation that for-profit corporations have a
unique ability to gather enormous funds and that expenditures from the
corporate treasury are certain to undermine democracy - understood to
mean rule by the people. Real human beings, not corporations.

In
arguing to uphold the existing corporate expenditure restrictions, the
Federal Election Commission has emphasized these common sense
observations.

"For-profit corporations have attributes that no
natural person shares," the FEC argues. Noting that corporations are
state-created -- not natural entities -- the FEC explains that
"for-profit corporations are inherently more likely than individuals to
engage in electioneering behavior that poses a risk of actual or
apparent corruption of office-holders." The FEC also notes that
corporate spending on elections does not reflect the views of a
company's owners (shareholders).

Although the signs aren't good, there is no certainty how the Court will decide Citizens United.
There is some hope that the Court will decide that it is inappropriate
to roll back such longstanding and important campaign finance rules, in
a case where the issue was not presented in the lower courts, and where
the litigants' dispute can be decided on much narrower grounds.

Public
Citizen is organizing people to protest against a roll back of existing
restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures. To join the effort, go
to www.dontgetrolled.org.
People are pledging to protest in diverse ways -- from street actions
to letter writing -- today, and in the event of a bad decision, and
also networking for solutions to corporate-corrupted elections.

Ours
is a government of the people, by the people, for the people -- not the
corporations and their money. Corporations don't vote, and they
shouldn't be permitted to spend limitless amounts of money to influence
election outcomes.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.
Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson serves as counsel to the original
sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law, who have filed an amicus brief in
the case, asking that existing restrictions on corporate election
expenditures be maintained.

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics
  • 208 Regulation