Preventing Corporate Influence in Political Elections

Last month, a narrowly-divided Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people under the Constitution and should be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to sway voters to their way of thinking.

For a majority that prides itself on divining the original intent of the framers of that Constitution, it was a remarkable decision. I missed this in high school history, but apparently the framers viewed the East India Company as a person entitled to protection under the Bill of Rights.

Today's largest companies, like those of the framers' day, straddle the globe and wield enormous influence already. The top three Fortune 500 companies brought in an average profit of more than $27 billion last year. The average Ohio household, by contrast, was lucky to break even.

If you believe our government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people - the ones who vote, volunteer, and put up yard signs - then corporations already have far more influence on our political process than they should.

In 2009, corporations spent $3.3 billion lobbying Congress to influence legislation. Now they will be able to spend unlimited funds to intimidate, retaliate, and replace their foes in Congress, while spending untold sums to reward and reinforce their friends.

Genuine citizens' movements, on the right or left of the political spectrum, could see their efforts drowned out. They cannot afford to advertise during the upcoming Super Bowl, but we know all too well that corporations are ready and willing. Real people with real concerns may be left in the dust by the drug industry and other deep-pocketed special interests.

Congress must act to insure this decision does not take democracy out of the hands of our country's citizens. Today, I introduced The Citizens Right to Know Act, legislation that would both inject a measure of democracy into corporate attempts to sway our democratic process, and ensure our political decisions are not influenced by foreign-owned companies.

This legislation would require the shareholders of a corporation to vote for election spending before it happens. If shareholders know that millions or billions of dollars are about to be spent on campaign ads rather than being reinvested to create jobs or paid out in dividends, they may choose a different path. Whatever their choice, the decision should be theirs.

Ohio native Charlie Wilson, who was president of General Motors, once noted that what is good for America is good for GM, and vice versa. But that may not hold true in this case.. It is not good for America to have companies diverting profits into politics, particularly where their interests can be so dependent on government decision-making.

But if a company chooses to engage in political activity, the modern-day Charlie Wilsons should be willing to put their mouths where their money is. My bill would require corporate CEOs to do what political candidates do when they pay for political advertising: face the camera and tell the voters they sponsored a commercial.

Finally, the bill would ensure that our politics remain our own. Today, a foreign company may not spend money to influence an election. But a company based in the U.S. that is owned by foreigners may do so. That's wrong, and we need to change the law. If anything should bear the label Made in America, it should be our elections.

The patriots who threw tea into the Boston harbor would be shocked by the Supreme Court's decision. A tea company is not a person, except in the overactive minds of activist judges.

At times in our history the Supreme Court has stood as the champion of the rights of individuals when Congress, to its discredit, has shrunk from the task. Now, it is Congress' turn to vindicate the vision of the framers.