Endless Money

Corporations Really Are People

While the nation holds its collective breath over the fate of Obamacare (hint, it’s going down) the conservative judicial activists on the U.S. Supreme Court have affirmed their original controversial decision that its just fine to have unlimited and often undisclosed corporate money flow into our political system.

At issue in the case summarily disposed of Monday was a Montana Supreme Court decision that attempted to uphold the Treasure State’s 100-year plus ban on corporate money in state elections.

The Court’s five man majority reversed the Montana court decision and reminded all of us of the essence of its earlier ruling in the now infamous Citizens United case.  “Political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation,” the majority said in an unsigned, one-page ruling.

Turns out that Mitt Romney was right, corporations are people, at least when it comes to spending political money that the Court equates with free speech protections under the First Amendment.

The Montana Attorney General, among others, had argued that the state’s special, if not unique, history of corporate influence – and in the early 1900’s corporate control – over Montana politics required a special remedy, namely banning corporate money from state races. The law dates back to when Copper King William A. Clark literally bought himself a seat in the United States Senate using the vast wealth he accumulated from his mining interests in Montana. Fast forward a hundred years and Karl Rove and others are using the opening created by Citizens United to use their free, if not inexpensive, speech rights to try and buy a president, a United States Senate and a few governors for good measure.

Remarkable how history has a way of repeating itself.

More interesting than the one-pager from the “conservatives” on the Court who show such respect for precedent that they overturned 100 years of settled law in the Citizens case is the dissent from Justice Stephen Breyer, who apparently has been reading the newspapers.

Breyer wrote: “Montana’s experience, like considerable ex­perience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do
so.”

Justice Breyer’s concern about the corrupting influence of money, even if it is only the appearance of corruption, is at the cold heart of this issue and the evidence is everywhere to be seen.

Mitt Romney invited a few hundred of his biggest donors over the weekend to a closed-to-the-press gathering in Park City, Utah. The donors were treated to the kind of face-time with the candidate that Joe and Jill Six-Pack could never hope to get. Also in attendance was the head of the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future. Our Swiss cheese-like campaign finance laws say Charlie Spies, the Super PAC leader and a D.C. lawyer, can’t legal “coordinate” with the campaign even as the television spots he is paying for mirror the campaign’s messages. But, apparently it is alright for Mr. Spies to camp out in the lobby of the hotel were the Romney event was taking place to see and be seen by those coming and going.

It brings to mind the great line from the movie Casablanca. The Vichy French police official Captain Renault, played by Claud Rains, announces that he is “shocked, shocked” that gambling is going on in Rick’s Cafe just as a croupier hands him his winnings for the night. The Super PAC’s will be the real story of the 2012 election and no one should be shocked that the charade of separation of candidates from PAC’s is as much a fiction as the Easter Bunny.

And, of course, Democrats do it, too. Republicans may just be better at attracting the kind of donors who will spend a few billion on a campaign. Both parties share the guilt for allowing this money in politics situation to spiral completely out of control.

Following the political money scandal that grew from the Watergate break-in just 40 years ago, the Congress, responding to popular outrage, made a stab at reforming campaign finance laws. (It’s worth remembering that Watergate, arguably the greatest political scandal in our history helped reveal the extent to which corporate money was being utilized by Richard Nixon to maintain his hold on the White House.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent a clear signal with its refusal to reconsider Citizens United that the sky is the limit when it comes to money in politics. Six billion is the estimate for this cycle and at the rate this trend is expanding it will be $12 billion in four more years.

Ironically, its not really the money that individuals give to candidates that is the major cause of worry in this case. But rather the unregulated, often unreported, no-limits funding of causes and candidates by those with the deepest pockets. That is what casts grave doubt, as Justice Breyer says, on the very essence of a democracy. Do the people chose the leaders or do the most well-to-do individuals and corporations chose?

Nothing succeeds like excess, they say, and by that standard the unregulated, uncontrolled campaign finance system in the United States is succeeding like never before.

As Captain Renault would say, “Round up the usual suspects.”

 

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