Money Talks Politics

As expected, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court issued a ruling Jan. 21 that corporations are entitled to engage in political debate.

Writing for the majority in Citizens United v. F.E.C., Justice Anthony Kennedy tried to frame the decision as an affirmation of First Amendment free-speech rights, but make no mistake: This was an affirmation of corporate rights at the expense of individual rights.

Before the Citizens United ruling, there was no question that flesh-and-blood people could say anything they wanted and contribute to the political candidate of their choice. But from the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907 after the corrupt excesses of the Gilded Age, corporations were ordered to stay out of election campaigns. Then, in the Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that money equals speech and since corporations have money they ought to be able to spend it to run “issue ads” as long as they did not advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.

Citizens United is a group that, with corporate funding, wanted to air an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary movie during the 2008 presidential primary season, but the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law of 2002 bars such corporate-funded political advocacy in the 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election.

Money won again, and now, with the high court’s blessing, multinational corporations can endorse candidates or flay them, and they can outshout individual voices that disagree with them.

Members of Congress speculate that politically aggressive corporations could snap up available broadcast advertising spots around election time, so that even if populist candidates are able to raise cash, they might have trouble buying time on TV and radio. That might be good for media holding companies who have been in a slump the past year, but it’s bad for democracy.

While the ruling does not overturn the prohibition against corporations making direct contributions to federal political candidates, the Republican-dominated court can be expected to look favorably upon a future lawsuit that challenges even that fig leaf.

The Supreme Court decision also threatens laws in at least 24 states that prohibit corporate spending in political campaigns, including a century-old Texas law that was a key to prosecution of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for alleged criminal violations of state campaign finance laws and money laundering.

The Citizens United decision shows that Chief Justice John Roberts’ was conning the Senate in 2005 when he promised before his confirmation that he would just be an “umpire” who would call balls and strikes and he’d respect judicial precedent and settled law.

The court could have balanced First Amendment interests with the need for fair elections with a narrow ruling on Hillary: the Movie. But Roberts refused to go along with precedents permitting restrictions on corporate political speech as well as a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. McCain-Feingold). The majority took the extraordinary step of asking the plaintiffs to reargue the case, which gave the court the opportunity to do more damage than Citizens United originally requested.

Scott Lemieux of The American Prospect noted Jan. 21 that the central line of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion — that the First Amendment does not permit distinctions based on the identity of the speaker — is superficially attractive. “The problem is, there’s no reason to believe that any of the justices believe it,” Lemieux wrote. In the case of Morse v. Frederick, in 2007, all five justices who supported expansion of corporate speech rights in the Citizens United case joined in the denial of a free-speech claim made by a high school student.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote a vigorous 90-page dissent, called the majority’s decision “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding ... 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.”

When the Bill of Rights was drafted, the Framers had no sense that corporations should be accorded any sort of civil rights. Many, including Thomas Jefferson, feared that “monied corporations” could subvert the republic. Stevens noted, “The Framers took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare.”

Democratic congressional leaders are exploring ways to restrict corporate political activity and expand public financing of federal elections so that congressional candidates do not have to rely on corporations and their lobbyists. Those are worthy initiatives, but we think a constitutional amendment will be required to establish that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as natural persons, but are subject to state regulation.

“To me, it’s a horrific ruling but I actually welcome the clarity it brings,” said David Cobb, an organizer of Move To Amend, a coalition of public interest, community and business organizations that is proposing a constitutional amendment to restore the power of state and federal governments to regulate corporations.

The proposed amendment, which is still being drafted, would:

• Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

• Guarantee real people the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count.

• Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate “preemption” actions by global, national, and state governments.

If the corporate involvement in politics is unchecked, Cobb said, it could lead to fascism or corporatism — the merger of state and corporate power.

Cobb said the response has been fantastic, attracting principled conservative populists as well as progressive populists. He hopes that groups like the Tea Parties will redirect their suspicion of government to Wall Street. At least one Tea Party leader, Dale Robertson, already has indicated his support of the Move To Amend effort, Cobb said. (For more information see MoveToAmend.org or phone 707-269-0984.)

It is clear that people cannot rely on the corporate media to report fairly on the corporate dominance of government, he added. “This is another reason we need publications like The Progressive Populist, community radio and what I call ‘horizontal media’ to get the word out,” Cobb said, And “net neutrality” is profoundly important to keep the Internet free of corporate control. Help us get the word out.

Don’t Back Down On Health Reform

Democrats in Congress and the White House appeared to panic after Scott Brown upset Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. Dems should settle down and get to work passing what progressive bills they can in the next nine months because there’s no telling what the anti-incumbent mood, combined with corporate campaign ads, will produce in the next Congress. Democrats still have a 59-41 majority in the Senate — which actually is one more than they started the session with. Some news media seem to believe that the Republicans are in charge with their “superminority” of 41 in the Senate and being only 81 seats down in the House, But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid need to show that they are setting the agenda and moving progressive legislation that helps working people and small businesses recover from the Bush II Recession.

Democrats must pass the health reform bill as soon as possible and get to work on a jobs bill. The House should adopt the flawed Senate health bill — which has a number of good reforms, including the guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But House progressives must get ironclad assurances that Senate Democrats will rescind the excise tax on health benefits for union members and maybe improve some other features as part of the budget reconciliation bill, which is not subject to filibuster. If the House wants to hold onto the Senate bill until the Senate acts on the budget bill, so be it, but there is no point in starting over with a new bill and letting the Republicans and their insurance company overlords delay the reforms any further.

If Democrats go into the election without passing health reform, or passing a bill that makes union members pay the taxes instead of the wealthy, the progressive and labor base may well stay home, or vote for the guy in the pickup, as they did in Massachusetts Jan. 19. Republicans have shown that they deserve the votes of corporate executives. Democrats have nine months to show that they deserve the votes of the rest of us. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2010


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