January 21st marks the first anniversary of the unfortunate 5-4 “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission” decision of the Supreme Court that gave the rights of personhood to corporations and shifted more political power and influence to lobbyists and large corporations. This decision ranks among the worst decisions in the Court’s history.
In “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission,” the Supreme Court struck down the major parts of the McCain-Feingold election reform law that until last January placed limits on political donations from individuals, corporations, political action committees, and unions. The McCain-Feingold law also required disclosure of the donators. By granting recognition of corporations as “persons,” the Court gave First Amendment freedom of speech protection to those corporations and outright permission for those corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to political issues organizations. The result tilts the power of influence dramatically in favor of corporations and their lobbyists, who can now roam the halls of Congress with limitless financial resources to advance the interests of corporations, which have obligations only to corporate profits and not to the national good.
The court case of “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission” resulted from the use of a political video that attacked the character of Hillary Clinton and violated key regulations mandated by the McCain-Feingold law. The Supreme Court’s “activist” decision went beyond the legality of using the anti-Clinton video. Led by Chief Justice Roberts, the activist judges went further to specifically protect the “personhood” of corporations – especially regarding their “right” to spend unlimited funds in political issues campaigns as a matter of free speech protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution. By the way, the word “corporation” does not appear once in any part of the Constitution. Another effect of the Court decision was to disable campaign finance laws in 24 states. All of this was done by a Court majority which usually prides itself to be “strict constructionist” in its philosophy and says it disparages “court activism.”
What kind of voice can any individual have with our elected officials in competition with the resources of corporations? In Washington corporate voices have always been louder and stronger than those of individuals; now the corporate sound is louder than ever. In America’s 2010 Congressional elections over $300 million from corporations, unions, and other groups was spent to fund attack ads and similar activities.
In his State of the Union Address last year, President Obama was so correct in stating that the Court’s decision would have a profoundly negative effect on American politics. Despite Chief Justice Roberts’ shaking his head in a negative response to the President’s warning, events of the past year have proven the President correct. In the November Congressional elections, corporate money was a major factor in 80% of the races in which incumbents were defeated, especially in paying for negative ads that flooded the media. Some of those corporate donations reportedly came from foreign sources.
Ironically, one of the big losses was the defeat of Senator Feingold, co-author of the finance reform and disclosure law that the Federal Elections Commission had been implementing. Millions of dollars in corporate donations from outside Wisconsin were used to defeat Feingold, who steadfastly refused all
Political Action Committee donations to his campaign, even those that were allowable under the law that he wrote. His integrity and dedication to government reform will be missed in the Senate.
Even more disturbing than the Court’s advocacy for unlimited corporate spending on elections is the Court’s protection for the anonymity of those big corporate donors. While you and I have to disclose who we are and where we work when we contribute $100 or more, corporations can give millions without disclosing who the people are who authorize the contributions, which are usually used for negative attack ads.
While a few attempts at mollifying the consequences of the Court’s decision passed last year in the House of Representatives, the Senate could not muster the 60 votes needed because of the threat of a filibuster. One of those bills that came so close but failed to pass in December was the proposed “Disclosure Act” in the Senate, sponsored by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. It would have required disclosure of the persons behind the corporate donations that now dominate American elections. It has to be re-introduced in 2011 but will have a more difficult chance of passing in the less Democratic Congress. Certainly an outcry from millions of individual citizens is our only hope if the “Disclosure Act’ is to become a reality.
Because of the “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission” decision, any effect of Congressional action to limit corporate silencing of individual citizens’ voices will be limited in scope. What is really needed is a Constitutional Amendment to Prevent Corporate Control of Elections. This is a lengthy process that requires a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress and ratification by ¾ of the State Legislatures. Passing a Constitutional Amendment is not easy to do, BUT it has been done 27 times in our history and can be done again if we the people speak up and contact our representatives in Congress. We can also sign an on-line petition for an amendment at www.DontGetRolled.org, which also has more background information on the negative impacts of “Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission.”