Bill Knight - February 4
Macomb, IL – It was a decade or so back when my family turned a Washington, D.C., corner to behold the Supreme Court building, where my 10-year-old son, a "Star Wars" fan, looked at the white-marble structure and echoed Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, muttering, "You will never find such a wretched hive of scum and villainy."
On January 21, that smart-aleck remark came true, as an ideologically divided Court handed over democracy to corporations, lock, stock and ballot box. By a 5-4 vote, the Court eliminated most campaign-finance limits, including almost all restrictions on spending by corporations, and opened the way for an onslaught of unprecedented corporate cash cluttering politics.
A century-old prohibition on direct corporate giving remains in effect, but spending - for posters and yard signs, robo-calls and especially a flood of broadcast advertisements - are sure to result, from corporate expenditures to money laundered through the Chamber of Commerce and even less transparent front groups.
In St. Louis, Washington University law professor Gregory Magarian commented, "The Court overruled a longstanding decision that had struck a sensible, carefully drawn balance between the self-interest of corporations and interests of integrity and fairness in the political process."
Justice John Paul Stevens in his strong dissenting opinion wrote that the ruling "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation."
Corporations already are influential. The insurance industry alone spent $46 million during the 2008 election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Pharmaceuticals spent $29 million; commercial banks spent $37 million. The Supreme Court's conservatives - Sam Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts - are the real "judicial activists."
Apologists for Big Business dismiss the decision as merely ensuring free-speech rights for corporations - or unions - to spend their money. That neglects the facts that corporations aren't people, have only shareholders' (or members') money, and that labor's resources are a comparable pittance. A bulldozer and a bullfrog might square off on a level playing field, but it's no contest.
Not surprisingly, President Obama and progressives were upset. Obama's campaign set a fundraising record without taking Political Action Committee (PAC) money and relied on large bundlers and small contributions through the Internet. He said, "The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests. That's why I am instructing my administration to get to work immediately with Congress" on "a forceful response to this decision."
In fact, a public financing bill exists: the Fair Elections Now Act, with bipartisan support. Co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. John B. Larson (a Connecticut Democrat) and Walter B. Jones (a North Carolina Republican), the measure would limit financial influence by big players while still letting 95% of House members raise the same or more money than they spent in 2008, according to Federal Elections Commission data.
Historically, it's not unusual for Republicans to be suspicious of corporate dough.
Republican President Abraham Lincoln said, "Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."
In 1905, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said, "All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law."
More recently, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain said, "I wish that one of the justices who were standing up for people's First Amendment rights had ever run for county sheriff. [The justices showed an] extreme na vet of the influence of corporate money and soft money."
Indeed, what's next? Maybe Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates can buy a church denomination. Better! "WIU, Ltd.: A wholly owned subsidiary of Peabody Coal." Better yet: "Illinois: Mile After Magnificent Mile owned by Shendong Coal, China."
As Obi-Wan added, "We must be cautious."