If you thought there was too much money in politics already, consider this: the $2.4 billion that was spent on the 2008 presidential race could soon be considered a very meager sum.
Straying from a century-long national tradition of limiting corporate involvement in political campaigns, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission last month to allow corporations to fund independent political broadcasts during federal campaigns.
This decision has tremendous repercussions on our electoral system, and it will hurt individuals’ abilities to influence the process.
It allows oil companies to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads, helping to elect candidates who don’t believe in global warming. It allows big banks to run messages in support of politicians who don’t want banking regulations. In short, it helps special interest groups dominate Washington.
But the decision could also impact state and local elections, including those held here in Pennsylvania. Many states, including ours, ban corporations from independent spending in statewide elections. The Supreme Court ruling does not immediately affect these laws, but it could be used as the basis for future challenges to the state bans’ constitutionality.
Corporations’ gains in power at the state and local levels, in additions to the federal stage, will further undermine the influence of ordinary individuals. The efforts of campus political groups such as the Penn Democrats and College Republicans, for example, will be unfairly overshadowed by corporate-funded political messages.
Supporters of the Supreme Court ruling undeservingly claim it to be a victory for the First Amendment and free speech, which reopens the long-standing debate over corporate personhood. But others disagree with the concept of corporations having the same rights as citizens.
“[The decision] reflects a misunderstanding of the First Amendment,” said Penn Law professor Kermit Roosevelt in a statement. “The interests that corporate speech promotes could be promoted by actual people — typically, the shareholders or employees of a corporation — so there is no compelling reason to give the corporation rights to promote it.”
Affording the same rights to free speech that individuals currently enjoy to corporations necessitates handing over an extraordinary amount of influence. Citizens who believe strongly in a particular cause will not be able to stand up against a corporation that disfavors it. Individuals can vote with their wallets, but corporations can vote with their treasuries.
As disastrous as this ruling is, experts say the trend could be moving toward having even fewer campaign finance regulations in the future.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania — a non-profit, non-partisan citizens’ lobby group — said the next laws to be overturned could be the limits on corporations’ ability to give unlimited funds directly to political campaigns.
“[The decision] dealt a crippling blow to the fairness of elections and the fairness of the governing process,” Kauffman said. “And if they take the next step, then the game’s pretty much up.”
But there are some options being explored to minimize the possible damage caused by the ruling. Policy makers are looking into forbidding corporations from collaborating with candidates they support, requiring publicly traded companies to have their shareholders vote on any political expenditure, prohibiting corporations that receive government funding from supporting political ads and establishing a web site where all sources of funding for campaign advertising would be disclosed.
Sen. John McCain recently declared that, in the wake of this decision, campaign finance reform is dead. I am slightly less pessimistic; this necessary reform has just been momentarily knocked unconscious by the justices’ gavels.
Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Political Penndit appears on Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.