by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 6, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's easy to make the case that there is nothing that has done more to damage the proper functioning of our democracy than the system of legalized bribery and graft that now dominates the American political process.
Over the past year in Congress, we've seen the big insurance companies disrupt the health care debate, the big banks opposing regulations to protect our economy, and the big oil companies slow efforts to address global warming. Corporations already dominate our political process through political action committees, fundraisers, high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders. The last thing our nation needs is unlimited corporate funding for the candidates and causes they favor at election time.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't see it that way. On Jan. 21, the court issued a 5-4 decision that struck down a major portion of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law, saying it violates the free-speech right of corporations to engage in the public debate of political issues.
The court overturned a 1990 legal precedent and reversed a position it took in 2003, when a different lineup of justices upheld government restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations during elections. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were in the majority. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor were in the minority.
In his 90-page dissent denouncing the decision, Stevens said that "while American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." He called the majority opinion a dangerous rejection of common sense that "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation."
It's hard to disagree. The idea that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend money and advocate political and policy positions during election seasons just as individuals do is absurd. It continues the false principle that money equals free speech and that putting limits on the financing of political campaigns is unconstitutional.
At the heart of the case is a 90-minute "documentary" made by Citizens United, a Virginia-based conservative group legally organized as a nonprofit corporation, which was released during the 2008 presidential campaign. "Hillary: The Movie" sharply attacked Hillary Rodham Clinton and her political record, and Citizens United wanted to spend $1.2 million for ads to promote and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems.
The Federal Election Commission said no. Based on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, all broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of "electioneering communications" paid for by corporations in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general election are prohibited. The FEC's decision was later upheld in federal court. Both considered the film a 90-minute political attack ad.
The Supreme Court on Thursday decided to overrule its 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and part of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the 2003 decision that upheld the central provisions of McCain-Feingold.
With the decision to scrap these two laws and roll back a century of attempts to restrain the power of corporate money in American politics, the result is a disaster for democracy and free speech. Until now, corporations and labor unions have been barred from spending their own funds on broadcast ads or billboards that urge the election or defeat of a federal candidate. This ban goes back to 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt called on Congress to forbid corporations, railroads and national banks from using their money in federal election campaigns. Congress extended this ban to unions after World War II.
While the court did uphold the prohibition on corporations and unions giving money directly to the campaigns of federal candidates and affirmed current federal rules which require the sponsors of political ads to disclose who paid for them, you don't need a crystal ball to foresee a flood of extra dollars into the 2010 congressional elections and that Republican candidates will be the main beneficiaries.
It cannot be repeated enough. The only legal obligation that corporations have is to make more money for their shareholders. There's no such thing as corporate free speech, because its speech is limited by law to advance the interests of the corporation over the interests of society as a whole. With that kind of mandate, it's easy to see what kind of economic policies and political candidates would be supported.
The Center for Media and Democracy is sponsoring a campaign to undo the Supreme Court's rewrite of the First Amendment at their Web site, PRWatch.org. They want Congress to enact an "Americans Before Corporations" amendment to the Constitution: "No corporation shall be considered to be a person who is permitted to raise or spend money on federal, state, or local elections of any kind."
Doing this would help end the legal principle that corporations are people, and that they are entitled to all the same rights that are constitutionally guaranteed to human beings. Corporations have far more money and influence than most ordinary citizens and can easy trample over the will of the people. If we are to keep a semblance of democracy, big money can not be allowed to distort the democratic process.< Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.