In the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a conservative non-profit corporation, which produced the film, “Hilary: The Movie.” The FEC had blocked the airing of this political attack ad, citing a previous 1990 Supreme Court ruling, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to this previous ruling, the ad was found to be in violation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, which bans corporations and unions from funding political ads that favor a particular candidate.
McCain-Feingold Violates Free Speech
Critics of campaign finance reform, such as Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post, claim such legislation violates the first amendment by refusing to offer constitutional protections of free speech for corporations.
Richard Epstein of Forbes writes that there are laws that protect from fraud and abuse by corporations, and often pressure from shareholders, public opinion, and opposing funding from other corporations work to maintain integrity in the system.
The CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc. enraged his liberal customer base with his stance on Obama’s health care. His op-ed piece criticizing health care reform prompted a campaign of boycotting his company, as reported by Emily Friedman of ABC News.
Activist Judges Overturn a Century of Established Law
In the decision Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court sought to uphold portions of BCRA by regulating “soft money” (money given by corporations to a political purpose with the intent of supporting a specific candidate) and “issue ads”.
Previous to this decision, the Tillman Act of 1907 was the first law passed to forbid corporate funding for elections.
David Corn of Mother Jones argues that this decision goes against everything the Court and legislatures have been working toward for nearly a century, and severely alters the balance of power in government. His opinion is shared by some of the Justices on the Court itself.
Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion that this decision was “misguided” in its attempt to rewrite law regarding campaign finance reform and attribute the identity of personhood to corporations. He makes the case that corporations do not hold the same rights as a natural human citizen, and furthermore, are open to influence by nonresidents or foreign nationals.
Foreign Influence over American Politics
During President Obama’s State of the Union address, Justice Alito was seen to mouth the words “not true” in response to the President’s assertion that this ruling opens up the possibility that foreign governments can now influence American elections.
Attorney Ted Olson refused to rule out the possibility of foreign influence on campaign finance when Justices Stevens and Ginsburg inquired about the considerations of defining multi-national corporations as citizens of the U.S. with constitutional rights.
During the 1990s, the Clinton administration came under fire for having allowed Chinese money to influence important political discussions.
Shift in Power to Favor Republicans and Big Business?
In Obama’s press to pass health care reform, many of the most vocal opponents were reported by news agencies such as MSNBC to have been funded in part by health insurance companies. Many progressives see this as a trend in current politics where special interest groups influence important policy decisions that might affect their profit margins.
Already, the coal and oil industry is spending millions on ads to persuade people to call their congressional representatives to urge them to vote against any environmental reform considered by the legislature. Many fear an equally intense battle over the finance industry reform bills now being considered.
Progressive lawmakers such as Senator Charles Schumer (D) claim that the voice of the American people will be drowned out by corporate America, who has shown that they are willing to spend liberally to fight against legislation that affects them directly.
Traditionally, Democrats have always held the opinion that strong government counteracts abuses by large corporations. Republicans have argued that government should stay clear of corporate growth because a free market economy will eventually eliminate all abuses.
Congress Responds to Concerns
President Obama appealed to Congress during his State of the Union address to offer legislation that would put the balance of power back into the hands of the people and hopefully prevent foreign and special interest an undo amount of influence in U.S. elections.
Senator Barney Frank (D) has asserted that the congressional finance committee, which is responsible for corporate law, can and will do something to limit the power of big business in politics.
Senator Mike Capuano (D) has presented legislation that would hope to counteract this decision by requiring shareholders of a company to vote on the use of treasury funds to participate in political campaigns.
This decision represents a firm interpretation of the law by the Supreme Court, and cannot be overturned except by Constitutional amendment or subsequent decision by a future Supreme Court. Regardless of this, lawmakers and political activists are working hard to find ways of counteracting what they have called a devastating change in the political climate.