Thursday, January 21, 2010

Corporate Campaign Financing - the Supreme Court opens the floodgates (to Hell?)

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court that corporations can no longer be restricted in spending on political campaigns should come as no surprise – for two very related reasons.

First, corporations enjoy a unique legal status – that of discrete persons.

“Corporations gained personhood through aggressive court maneuvers culminating in an 1886 Supreme Court case called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific. Until then, only We the People were protected by the Bill of Rights, and the governments the people elected could regulate corporations as they wished. But with personhood, corporations steadily gained ways to weaken government restraints on their behavior—and on their growth. After steady progress over the decades, they made huge strides in the 1970s through Supreme Court rulings that awarded them Fourth Amendment safeguards against warrantless regulatory searches, Fifth Amendment double jeopardy protection, and the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. These blunted the impact of the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act, which were enacted to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

They also won court battles that awarded them First Amendment guarantees of political speech, commercial speech, and the negative free speech right not to be associated with the speech of others. On the surface, when the big corporations and We the People have the same rights, they are equal, and the playing field is level. But disparities of scale tip the field toward the corporations at a steep pitch. If a nation-sized corporation with its huge treasury and squadrons of lawyers wants to exercise its free speech rights in a shouting match with a citizen who is exercising her or his free speech rights, can this be a fair fight? “

This long legal record clearly shows that, once America decided that an individual human and Exxon were equivalent under the law for certain rights, it became ever easier for the corporations to gain ever more influence. Thus, contrary to what some commenters are already saying, the ruling striking down the campaign finance restrictions are not unprecedented. Just as the Supreme Court could be expected to grant broad speech rights to actual humans, it must also grant those same (or VERY, VERY similar rights) to the legal persons known as corporations.

Second, the current Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority made up of justices who were put in place by pro-corporation Republican Presidents. Time and again, they have stood up for corporations, and in effect said that what’s good for these behemoths is good for ordinary persons too. So if anyone really expected this Court to rule another way, they need a long vacation so as to reconnect with reality.

More to the point, however, is the question of how Democrats will ever again be able to accomplish anything politically in this country. If you really think about what Democrats (and many Progressives) want to push as part of the political agenda, those issues are anathema to corporations. Does anyone really believe that, freed from the campaign finance restrictions, we won’t now see issue and attack ads from Insurance companies, or coal companies, or vehicle companies all designed to preserve our too big to fail, too stupid to succeed corporate culture? Will Bank of America now wade into Congressional fights and seek to punish those that spoke out against them during the bailout process?

And here's a direct question for my conservative interlocutors: How is what the Supreme Court did yesterday DIFFERENT then the "judicial activism" that judges appointed by Democratic Presidents are accused of?


Energy4America said...

Democratic Party responds to today's Supreme Court decision; DNC announces GE and Google as first Corporate Sponsors, promises to transform America. Press release at:

jg said...

I seem to recall the roots of the corporation going back deeper, beginning as a charter for the purpose of conducting some purpose that beneficial for the public. Now that I said that, I'm going to have to look for my source.

I, too, find the decision a dismal outcome. That entertainment and political advocacy can masquerade as news was bad enough. We're on a swift boat to hell.


Philip H. said...

Certain corporations indeed have such charters - railroads for instance. And ithink they would argue that making large profits is in the public interest, just as they now argue that running attack and endorsement ads is in the public interest.

jg said...

Thanks for the railroad example. Great word for this topic.

The right fears big government. I fear big business. The Court's solution seems to merge the two, so that big business can be more a part of the big government.


Mike at The Big Stick said...

I don't see how it is fair to allow unions to contribute money and not corporations.

Philip H. said...

I think there are two issues RE fairnes and Unions. First, while Unions can, and do seek to influence elections, they are austensibly trying to do so for the betterment of their memebrs - in much the same way that political action committees and even political parties seek to try to influence elections for the betterment of their members.

Second, the corporations that will likely play in this new sandbox will still have economies of scale advantages over the biggest unions and certainly over the individual tax payer. Exxon Mobil,for instance, has the ability to make the case for its Point of View in multiple markets through multiple media streams simulatneously. Even big unions (like the Teamsters, or the AFL-CIO) can't manage that feat, and certainly not for as long.

Thomas Joseph said...

... they are austensibly trying to do so ...

Bold emphasis mine. I think we'd be kidding ourselves nowadays if we think that anyone who wields any sort of power (be they running a business, government, or unions) cares one whit about those below them. They're all suspect, they all have their own agendas.

Makes me almost want to be an anarchist.

Thomas Joseph said...

Second, the corporations that will likely play in this new sandbox will still have economies of scale advantages over the biggest unions and certainly over the individual tax payer.

Saw a breakdown of how corporations spend campaign money and the breakdown (in dollars) was something along the lines of 52% Republican / 48% Democrat. For Unions, it was along the lines of 5% Republican / 95% Democrat. So Corporations play the field pretty equally, so while we'll get swamped with their crap on television, it will be equally offensive to everyone. The unions ... conservatives have to put up with more crap from them.