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Dems Take on Supreme Court's Giant Sell-Out of Our Democracy to Corporations

The Supreme Court handed over our political system to corporate power, and now some lawmakers are fighting to get it back.

Editor’s note: Sign a petition urging Congress to address the unlimited corporate campaign spending ushered in by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling here.

Democrats in Congress are fighting to undo, or at least mitigate, the potential damage wrought by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision, an example of right-wing judicial activism that has the potential to put the final nail in the coffin of American self-governance and turn over our elections to multinational corporations.

Speaking at last week’s Netroots Nation conference, a gathering of liberal activists, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, put the threat posed by Citizens United in simple-to-understand terms. “We’re now in a situation,” he told the crowd, “where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, ‘I’ve got five million dollars to spend, and I can spend it for you or against you. Which do you prefer?’” That’s power.

The Citizens United ruling overturned key provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, rules that kept corporations -- and their lobbyists and front groups (as well as labor unions) --- from spending unlimited amounts of cash on campaign advertising within 60 days of a general election for federal office (or 30 days before a primary). To get there, the court’s conservative majority stretched the Orwellian legal concept known as “corporate personhood” to the limit, and gave faceless multinationals expansive rights to influence our elections under the auspices of the First Amendment.

“They wanted to hear the possibility that that’s the way the constitution would read to them,” said Grayson. “So they picked an issue out of the air that nobody had conceived of [as a First Amendment case] because 100 years of settled law meant that corporations cannot buy elections in America, and they not only allowed corporations to buy those elections, but they made it a constitutional right.” He called the decision “a tragedy for us all,” as   “corporations now have rights that human beings can never have.”

It's hard to overstate the ruling’s potential to undermine American democracy. Robert Weisman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, offered “a reality check” for the court, and anyone else who agrees with its majority’s belief that unlimited corporate money for independent ad buys won’t corrupt our political class. “$5.2 billion [was] spent in the 2007-2008 election cycle by all federal candidates, including candidate Obama,” Weisman said. “Exxon in that same period made $85 billion in profit; Pfizer made $27 billion selling just Lipitor alone. Last year, Goldman Sachs spent $16.5 billion on executive compensation. So if they choose to, corporations can completely overwhelm the political process, and they’re going to choose to do it more and more.”

And when corporations do get into the game in force, voters won’t know who’s picking up the tab for the flood of campaign ads. The money won’t come directly from Exxon or BP or Goldman Sachs, it’ll be filtered through the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate front groups with benign-sounding names like the Center for Consumer Freedom, Citizens for a Sound Economy or the American Council on Science and Health.

Now members of Congress are fighting to push back against the ruling on a number of fronts. Grayson has introduced a flurry of legislation, including the Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act ( HR 4431), which would impose a hefty tax on corporate campaign contributions in federal races; the Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act ( HR 4432), which requires financial firms to disclose any contributions to federal candidates that exceed $1,000, and the End the Hijacking of Shareholder Funds Act ( HR 4487), which requires shareholders to vote on any corporate expenditures that are meant to influence public opinion about anything other than their products and services.