How to Put a Stop to Corporate-Funded Government Before It Gets Totally Out of Hand
Think Progress article by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, Charlie Eisenhood, Tanya Somanader, and George Zornick
In an activist 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a decades-long ban on the use of corporate money in elections with its ruling in the Citizens United case in January, opening the floodgates to unlimited, anonymous spending on political campaigns by corporations, unions, and advocacy organizations. Reactions were swift, as many voices joined the dissenting justices in expressing concern that the ruling "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation." Lawmakers quickly set to work on a bill, unveiled in April with bipartisan support, designed to mitigate the negative effects of the Supreme Court decision. The legislation -- called the DISCLOSE (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) Act -- seeks to secure transparency in the electoral process through provisions holding corporations to a number of disclosure rules. President Obama called it the "toughest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by big oil corporations, Wall Street and other special interests...trying to buy representation in our government." The Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, said the bill would "shine a powerful light on...corporate political expenditures." However, corporate lobbyists and many leading Republicans, who cheered the Citizens United decision as a victory for First Amendment rights, called the DISCLOSE Act an attack, as U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue put it, on "constitutionally protected speech." However, as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." Indeed, new polling from MoveOn.org shows that 77 percent of voters in 18 battleground congressional districts and 4 battleground states think that "corporate election spending is an attempt to bribe politicians;" only 19 percent consider it free speech. And 79 percent believe it's important that a candidate commit to reducing the influence of corporations over elections.
TARGET TARGETED: Last month, news broke that the retailer Target had taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling, donating $150,000, more than the company had given all year to federal campaigns and causes, to help Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who wants to cut waiters' minimum wage and opposes same-sex marriage. The donation, given to MN Forward, a Republican-leaning political action committee (PAC) in Minnesota, was only made known when existing campaign finance laws required the PAC to file financial reports. Target has come under fire from progressive and gay rights organizations for its support of Emmer. The company, "one of the largest sponsors of LGBT events around Minnesota each year," has been viewed by LGBT groups in the past "as progressive on gay issues." Twin Cities Pride, an LGBT organization in Minneapolis/St. Paul, is now "reviewing its partnership with Target" in light of its political action. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions boycotting the company until it stops spending money on elections. Feeling the pressure, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized to his employees earlier this week. "While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future," Steinhafel said, "I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry." The backlash against Target may quell other corporations' forays into political spending. "Publicly traded companies have always had a difficult time engaging in partisan politics. In this case, Target has shown that a retail company can be particularly subject to controversy and pressure. It will have the impact of discouraging some companies from political involvement," former Minnesota Republican congressman Vin Weber said. Consumers and employees only held Target accountable because their donation was disclosed under campaign finance laws. The incident thus highlights the importance of legislation like the DISCLOSE Act that seeks to prevent anonymous unhampered spending.
IN THE SHADOWS: Already, other political and industry groups have begun raising huge sums of money because of the Citizens United ruling. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove recently helped form a "shadow RNC" called American Crossroads to help Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. After a dismal first month of fundraising, the group raised $8.5 million "from an even split of individuals and corporations." Rove credited the success to the Supreme Court decision. "What we've essentially said, is if you've maxed out the to senatorial committee, the congressional committee or the RNC and would like to do more," Rove said. "Under the Citizens United decisions, you can give money to the American Crossroads 527." The Supreme Court's ruling has also bolstered industry. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that "several major coal companies hope to use newly loosened campaign-finance laws to pool their money and defeat Democratic congressional candidates they consider 'anti-coal.'" The companies are forming a 527 group that will allow them to hide their activities until after the midterm elections. In a letter to other coal companies, Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group, wrote, "With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard." Sadly, their voices have long encouraged deregulation. The results have been tragedies at coal mines including the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 people.
FAILING TO DISCLOSE: Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a political science professor and expert on money in politics, told the Los Angeles Times last week, "What we are seeing is that major businesses and industries are taking advantage of the recent court ruling and favorable political environment. They are already committing substantially more money than they have in any previous election cycles." The DISCLOSE Act that just stalled in Congress due to Republican obstruction would have helped to lessen the negative impact of increased spending by making it much more transparent. Yet, even Republicans who used to champion transparency and accountability failed to support the DISCLOSE Act reforms. For years, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushed legislation that would expand campaign finance disclosure, but then called the DISCLOSE Act a "transparent effort to rig the fall election" as he led his party en masse to filibuster the bill. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who used to speak out against "big money special interests" and co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold act, a campaign finance bill that banned soft money contributions from corporations and unions while requiring greater disclosure, voted against the DISCLOSE Act. Although there are some reports that the bill will be reintroduced in September. Perhaps common sense and accountability will prevail and the bill, free of carveouts, will find some bipartisan support.