Thursday, September 10, 2009

tightening the corporate grip: the stakes at the supreme court

EssentialLists | 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 will be hearing 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 will today hear 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.