Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog. Written by Dan Conrad.
When President Obama gives his upcoming State of the Union address we will hear those famous words uttered: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States.” After the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding campaign contribution limits, one has to wonder if in 3 years we will hear something slightly different: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States presented by AT&T.” As the new president enters the magnificent chamber of the Cheetos House of Representatives, filled with both House members and members of the Flomax US Senate, it may be a good time to pause and wonder where it all went wrong.
On Thursday the Supreme Court made a sweeping ruling regarding the treatment of corporations and limitations in campaign spending placed on them by numerous laws. [Note that you can download the entire ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n) from the Supreme Court website.] The Roberts Court, which pledged to follow precedent and decide only narrow issues of law to avoid so-called “judicial activism”, went far beyond the narrow issue of the case in its ruling to make drastic changes to the law. The actual issue of the case involved part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that prohibited “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. The case was brought by a conservative non-profit group Citizen’s United, that wished to air a scathing documentary about Hillary Clinton on the eve of presidential primary elections. Their argument was that this provision allowed the Federal Election Commission to limit free speech.
Instead, the Court went back and reevaluated the entire treatment of corporate contributions in campaign finance. For decades there have been laws limiting the ways that corporations may participate in political campaigns. Essentially, the law allowed limits to be placed on personal contributions directly to a candidate, however, there is no limit on contributions that an individual makes on their own. Individuals are free to spend as much as they want in support of a given candidate so long as they purchase the airtime, ads, etc. themselves. This policy, however, did not extend to corporations, and laws routinely placed limits on the amounts and times when a corporation could spend to support a specific candidate. Thursday’s ruling essentially breaks down the distinction between corporations and people for free speech purposes in campaign finance and election spending.
It appears a corporation could now spend whatever they want, whenever they want, in support of a specific candidate, so long as they do not give directly to the candidate. Justice Stevens, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, read his dissent from the bench (a rarely exercised act used to express extreme displeasure in the Court’s ruling.) He stated that the ruling was “profoundly misguided” and that “[t]he court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.” According to the NY times article, President Obama concurs as he:
“…called [the ruling] “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
This ruling could have a chilling affect on the environmental community given the fact that many of the opponents of environmental regulations are large corporations. Politicians will now not only fear they will not get corporate donations by supporting a certain issue, but will also fear that supporting an issue may result in a corporation spending millions to campaign against them during the next election. For the sake of knowing where we stand, I propose that politicians should be required to wear NASCAR jumpsuits and adorn their desks with the logos of those who paid to get them there. At least then we will all know who they really represent. When a Senator votes to allow drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge we can simply look at the giant Exxon emblem on their jacket and know who placed the vote. While the ultimate ramifications of this ruling remain to be seen, don’t be surprised if we look back at this day with nostalgia as we do on New Year’s Day now, when you look at your buddy and say “I remember back when the Peach Bowl was actually called the Peach Bowl and not the Chick Fil-A Bowl.”