Corporate Citizenship

Posted Jan. 25, 2010, at 5:18 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 21 ruling that corporations can spend as much as they want to influence the outcome of elections is one of the most game-changing developments in American electoral history. It means corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money urging voters to support or defeat candidates for Congress and the White House. The ruling stops short of allowing corporations to make unlimited donations to candidate campaigns, but the distinction is negligible given the power of TV to sway voters.

Teddy Roosevelt would be ashamed.

While president, Mr. Roosevelt in 1907 pushed Congress to ban corporations such as the then-powerful railroads and national banks from spending their own money on federal election campaigns. Congress extended the ban to labor unions after World War II.

Most observers expect a flood of corporate money to flow into the midterm congressional elections this year. And they expect Republican candidates to benefit more than their Democratic counterparts. The five Republican-appointed justices carried the high court’s decision. Justice John Paul Stevens, speaking for the four dissenting justices, said the ruling was “a radical change in the law that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and the narrow interests they represent in determining who will hold public office.”

Now those full-page ads and prime-time TV ads can come just days before an election.

Beyond tilting the scales, the ruling solidifies corporate standing before the Constitution, granting some of the same First Amendment rights that individuals have. For more than 100 years, the court has operated with the understanding that corporations have rights similar to those of an individual, though there was no definitive ruling establishing that view.

How far will this go? Why not allow corporations unlimited donations to campaigns? Why not let corporations vote? While that may be taking the ruling to absurd lengths, consider a likely scenario that is equally appalling: “Under [the] decision,” Justice Stevens said, “multinational corporations controlled by foreign governments” would be as able to sway U.S. elections.

The majority argued, somewhat persuasively, that a group of people — acting as a corporation — should not be barred from doing what an individual can do, namely buy a newspaper or TV advertisement supporting a candidate. But the ruling seriously undermines the notion of limiting and controlling the financing of campaigns. Wealthy individuals are now limited in what they can give one candidate. Will this court reverse that as well?

At the heart of this ruling is the court majority’s view that corporate interests are on par with individual interests. Except that corporate interests usually have deeper pockets supporting them. Imagine the results if a reporter stopped people on the street to ask if corporations have too much influence over government. Out of 100 how many would disagree?

“Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” Justice Stevens said. That distinction seems to have been lost on the court’s majority.

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