If the United States were a country truly committed to democracy, we would now be having a national discussion on limiting the role of big money in politics. After all, we are still recovering from a financial crisis brought on by an orgy of deregulation instigated by Wall Street interests that spent lavishly to influence members of Congress from both major parties and then had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Major auto companies such as General Motors, which for years successfully lobbied to weaken fuel-economy standards, also had to be bailed out when they could no longer sell gas-guzzling SUVs.
Instead, the role of corporate money is stronger than ever. Rather than having the decency of withdrawing from the policy arena, bailed-out companies have continued to lobby for weaker regulation. At the same time, the insurance industry has thrown a monkey wrench into long-overdue healthcare reform by making hefty contributions to conservative Democrats. The energy industry used its resources to weaken the climate bill.
And now the U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to open the floodgates completely. In June the high court took the unusual step of announcing it would hold a special hearing this September on a case involving a rightwing advocacy group, Citizens United, which ran afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in connection with its distribution of a film attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton during the last presidential campaign. Instead of ruling narrowly on the case, which involves some of the technicalities of McCain-Feingold, the Court signaled that it wanted to reconsider the entire question of corporate political spending. Direct corporate contributions to federal campaign were first banned in 1907, and independent campaign expenditures by business corporations were prohibited in 1947.
There is little doubt that this unusual move was promoted by conservative justices such as Scalia and Thomas who think that any restrictions on corporate electoral spending are violations of the First Amendment. And it is no surprise that pro-business groups are generally praising the Court for taking on the issue, conveniently discarding their usual disdain for judicial activism.
Meanwhile, progressive watchdog groups such as Public Citizen are sounding the alarm, warning that eliminating limits on corporate spending would allow large companies to use their resources to buy elections with impunity.
The cynical way of looking at this is that Big Business already manages to dominate the electoral system through its political action committees and lobbying expenditures, so uncontrolled spending would not make much difference. The danger, however, is that eliminating the restrictions would allow capital to completely overwhelm the electoral system. And it would be a huge boon for the destructive principle of corporate personhood, the basis on which business interests exercise such outsized influence over American life.
What makes this issue trickier is that the cases in question deal not only with political expenditures by business corporations but also ones made by labor unions and non-profit corporations. Unfortunately, there is a long legal tradition of treating democratic organizations such as unions as equivalent to business corporations, which are undemocratic entities that should have no constitutional rights.
That is not going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, we can only hope that reason prevails and the Supreme Court does not turn the electoral system into a total financial free-for-all.