Government Of, By, and For the Corporation

The Supreme Court could be one step away from striking down a century-old ban on corporate spending on elections and enshrining corporations with the same ability to contribute to a candidate as an individual.

The court heard continued oral arguments this morning in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, which addresses whether a group should have been able to use corporate money to distribute an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary in the middle of last year’s primary election. Citing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Acts ban on corporate money, the FEC said no; appellate courts agreed, and the case made its way to the Supremes. The Supreme Court had an initial hearing in April, but scheduled another hearing outside of their regular term to specifically address the question of whether the long-standing ban on corporate and union money in elections was constitutional.

Reform advocates had hoped that the court would avoid making a decision with sweeping constitutional (and precedent overturning) implications. If they had to rule in favor of Citizens United they could rule more narrowly: that video-on-demand constitutes a different kind of expenditure than commercials or that Citizens United was a unique kind of corporation that should be subjected to different rules.

But based on this morning’s hearing, a sweeping decision could be in store, and the corporate floodgates could soon be unleashed. This, from the Supreme Court blog:

Despite the best efforts of four other Justices to argue for restraint, the strongest impression was that they had not convinced the two members of the Court thought to be still open to an exercise in modesty. At least the immediate prospect was for a sweeping declaration of independence in politics for companies and advocacy groups formed as corporations.

If this does in fact happen—and the ruling is as sweeping as predicted—federal and state law would be overturned, and corporations could start writing checks directly to candidates. This infusion of money could flood television, radio, and internet with political ads in unprecedented ways.

The good news is that voluntary public campaign financing systems would remain viable even in the event of a sweeping ruling that overturns the corporate money ban entirely. Participating Voter-Owned Elections candidates could agree to only accept small contributions and refuse corporate money as a condition for receiving public funds. Indeed, the only way to counterbalance corporate expenditures might be to infuse more public money into the system so that candidates have a way to run without relying on these entrenched interests. But the change would no doubt have a deleterious impact on our democracy, making it much easier for beholden candidates to win through sheer dollar power.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial published yesterday (and reprinted in today’s N&O), we will all be worse off for it. They write :

If the court races to overturn federal and state laws, and its well-established precedents, to free up corporations to drown elections in money, it will be swinging for the fences. The American public will be the losers.


  1. IBXer

    September 9, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. – George Washington

    We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people. – John F. Kennedy

    The first principle of a free society is an untrammeled flow of words in an open forum. – Adlai E. Stevenson

    If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. – Noam Chomsky

    Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. – John Milton

    I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire

    A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything. – Napoleon Bonaparte

    When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward — or go back. He who now talks about the freedom of the press goes backward, and halts our headlong course towards Socialism. – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

    Our history can tell us a lot about our present. – IBXer

  2. Chase Foster

    September 9, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    And I do believe almost all of these people would agree that a legally created entity like a corporation does not have the same fundamental speech rights as a living, breathing, human being.

    That after all is the central issue in this case: is there a difference between a corporation and an individual?

    Anyone with common sense knows there is.

  3. Rob B

    September 9, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    IBXer can Google “quotes freedom of speech” AND cut-and-paste!

    Treating a corporation like a person is the heart and soul of everything wrong with this country. If an issue is important enough to an individual within a corporation, let him take his own salary and spend his own time funding a candidate. I am very disappointed with the Supreme Court on this one– VERY disappointed.

  4. James Raider

    September 10, 2009 at 12:27 am

    This may be one of the most important decisions made by this court. It should receive front page coverage, and cameras should be providing us with front row center seats to the drama.


    Voting taxpayers should want to increase controls on campaign funding, not reduce them.

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