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 heard 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 today heard 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, click here. 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.