In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court authorized unlimited political spending by corporations in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The result has been a green light to super PAC spending, much of which remains anonymous.
The consequences of the court decision and political action committee influence are profound at all levels of our government, even down to state elections. Ultimately the fallout has effects even on our local city government here in Bangor.
Donated money influences elections and, unfortunately, huge amounts can have huge influence. Thus big money, not big ideas may dominate our political dialogue. Recognizing this, we have had legislation which has attempted to limit these corrosive effects.
The McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was but the latest attempt to restrain the political money trail. Among its other provisions, it stipulated that the public must have access to the names of those donating to legislative campaigns. Understanding our candidates’ sources of financial support is important to understand the candidates themselves as well as the agendas they are influenced to support.
In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall described corporations as “invisible, intangible and existing only in contemplation of law” (Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward). They cannot vote, have limited liability and their ultimate purpose is to return a profit to their shareholders. The Supreme Court has endowed these artificial creatures with a unique ability to influence our society in secret.
Citizens United has opened the floodgates to hidden money in elections. It ruled that corporations and unions are equivalent to people under the First Amendment, entitled to the same rights of free speech as individuals. The court defined the ability to spend money without limit in support of a candidate as a form of free speech. PACs must report donors every three months but otherwise can spend as they wish.
More recently, wealthy groups have formed so-called social welfare organizations which can give unlimited amounts of money but do not have to disclose their donors. There are now loopholes in the loopholes of our mangled campaign finance laws.
Here in Bangor, our political process had maintained remarkable integrity and even the perception of outside influence is rare. This has changed with Citizens United. In the two weeks before the 2010 election, Karl Rove’s super PAC from Virginia spent $400,000 to unseat five Maine state senators. The advertisements sponsored by this group of Virginians profoundly affected the votes of the people of Maine — and Bangor.
The super PAC was not required to reveal its identity until well after the election. Influence of our elections by faceless people-from-away is not the Maine way.
Much of the American economy flows through corporations, which have enormous amount of cash available to spend. Unfortunately, the decisions of where and how to spend and the agendas those funds support are made by those few people who control corporate policy. Though many Mainers are part owners of some of these corporations, either by owning a few stocks or through a retirement account invested in mutual funds, it is an illusion to suggest that we control the agenda financed by these PACs.
In Maine, we have witnessed the corrosive effect of this PAC spending. The negative approach this funding supports does little to enlighten the debate and contributes to the polarization that has paralyzed our government and led to the recent early retirement of one of our star senators. Our democracy will not work if we as citizens come to believe that laws and lawmakers can be bought and sold.
The negative effects of PAC influence can be seen even locally. Fiscal decisions in Augusta in 2011 have kicked the can down the road forcing Bangor — and other municipalities — to consider cuts to education, general assistance, health care and other programs. We must either raise the mill rate or cut essential services — and not only for the needy.
It is easy to complain, but can we change this? There is a means, but it requires us to start the process. On Monday evening, March 12, the Bangor City Council will discuss placing a resolve on the agenda asking our congressional delegation to introduce an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will restrict the ability of corporations and other groups to give unlimited covert money to influence the outcome of elections. Other cities have passed similar resolves.
A simple truth lies at the heart of the resolve: Our government is of the people, by the people and for the people. Corporations are not people.
Daniel Cassidy is a physician who lives in Bangor.