It used to be the law in our country that strict limits were put on the amounts that corporations and unions could contribute to political campaigns. The federal law that limited those contributions and required disclosure was a bi-partisan effort co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and Republican Senator John McCain. The purpose of the law was to limit the political influence of the huge amounts of money at the disposal of corporations, unions, and special interest organizations – especially in the funding of negative attack ads on television.
Last year the U. S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision known as “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission,” threw out the strongest provisions of the McCain-Feingold legislation by recognizing the “personhood” of corporations. The effects of this decision will significantly increase the political influence and involvement of corporations because, according to the Court decision, under the Free Speech Amendment a corporation worth billions has the same right as you or I to donate to a candidate’s campaign. One difference is that you and I must give our name, address, and employer while corporate donors can spend unlimited amounts of money on attack ads and hide their involvement through front organizations with nice-sounding names like “Proponents of Apple Pie for a Better America”; they do not have to disclose the name of the corporation or the names of corporate officers who have decided to donate the money for the ads.
According to Congressman Maurice Hinchey, it is estimated that if American corporations were to spend just 2% of their annual profits on political donations, the amount would be more than the total amount spent by all parties on the 2008 presidential election.
It also used to be the law of our country that U. S. subsidiaries of foreign owned companies (such as British Petroleum) were limited to $5,000 contributions to political campaigns through political action committees. Now, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, those subsidiaries can spend unlimited funds for or against individual candidates for public office.
Just two weeks ago the U. S. Senate failed in an attempt to limit some of the negative consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision. On a motion to end debate requiring 60 votes, 57 Senators (all Democrats) voted in favor of the proposed Disclosure Act and 41 voted against disclosure (every Republican including Senator John McCain). The Disclosure Act would have required the top five contributors to political ads to list their names in the ads. The Act would have prohibited contributions from recipient of the federal bailout money as well as corporations with more than $10 million in government contracts, and it would have restored limits on contributions from subsidiaries of foreign owned corporations
Democrats in the Senate have vowed to bring the Disclosure Act to the floor of the Senate again in September, but even if they are the successful it will be too late to have any effect in the 2010 elections. So prepare for an onslaught this autumn of well funded anonymous ads.
Meanwhile some corporations and organizations have already chosen to become heavily involved in political campaigns. The Los Angeles Times reports that the U. S. Chamber of Commerce projects an increase in its contributions to 2010 Congressional candidates to $75 million, compared to $35 million in 2008, and that a group of five health insurance companies plans to spend nearly $20 million in an attempt to influence the results of tight Congressional races across the country. The LA Times also reports that a group of 15 tax-exempt organizations plan to spend around $300 million in the 2010 campaigns. These figures are staggering and represent a real threat to fair elections.
In Minnesota, Target Corporation contributed $150,000 to a Republican candidate for governor; Best Buy Corporation has been reported to be making a similar contribution in the same race. These are cases of corporations being forthright about levels of contributions to political campaigns that were not heard of before the Citizens United decision. What are we to imagine about the levels of corporate contributions to come anonymously? And what are we to do if we oppose the corporate purchase of elections? If you shop at Target or Best Buy, call the local manager and express opposition to corporate involvement in elections.
In addition to supporting Senators Schumer and Gillibrand in their efforts to pass the Disclosure Act and other election reform in Congress, we can voice support for reforms in New York State, including a law being considered in Albany that would require all New York State based corporations to obtain shareholder permission before spending money in political campaigns. None of these laws will completely counter the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision, but some movement must be made, however small, to restore some balance and reasonable limits to the current excess of corporate and special interest financing of our political campaigns.