We need to make campaign finance a civil rights issue

By Leo Hindery Jr.
July 23, 2012

Two Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and, later, American Tradition Partnership v. State of Montana) and an appellate court decision (SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission) are fundamentally transforming our political system and our democracy to a degree we may not grasp until the results of this year’s elections become clear. Never has our electoral process been more captive to vast – and mostly anonymous – sums of money from a handful of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

For all the scorn rightfully heaped on Citizens United, however, it’s actually SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission that has been most destructive. SpeechNow allows not-for-profit organizations to accept unlimited contributions from individuals for independent expenditures, and this decision birthed both “super PACs,” which can accept unlimited contributions but must disclose donors, and “tax-exempt organizations” which are not subject to the disclosure requirements that apply to candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs.

Under these recent court decisions, a handful of immensely wealthy individuals and CEOs and boards of directors of large corporations now legally direct tens of millions of dollars to funding an overwhelming stream of political ads on behalf of candidates from whom they obviously expect some sort of fealty once the candidates are in office.

Before we as a nation succumb to the complete abandonment of fairness and balance in our election process, we need to stop the bleeding. Institutional investors, policymakers and voters alike should demand administrative policies, legislative action and voluntary steps by corporations to dramatically limit corporate political spending.

To start, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in conjunction with the FEC, should use its existing powers to force public disclosure of all corporate political contributions and lobbying expenses. The SEC is obligated to compel public companies to disclose whatever expenditures are material to the companies and, under its same public interest doctrine, to similarly compel disclosure of actions which might materially affect shareholders’ decisions to invest. While political contributions might not be material measured against the totality of earnings, their disclosure, I would argue, are material items of disclosure for the investing public. This disclosure requirement should also include contributions made through a “bundler” or intermediary.

Separate and apart from any regulatory action the SEC might take, executives should be pushed to not use company funds to influence elections. The obvious voices to help advance this cause are the nation’s public pension funds.

Unfortunately, I have become convinced that no combination of this current Congress, the SEC and aggrieved shareholders will be enough to sufficiently rein in corporate political contributions and their undue influence. The potential payoff for these corporations in preferential tax breaks and weakened regulations and oversight is simply too great.

Today, massive corporations such as American Electric Power, Aetna, Prudential Financial, Dow Chemical, Merck and General Electric are pouring tens of millions of dollars into tax-exempt and anonymous trade groups to influence the outcome of federal elections. Chief among such trade groups is the United States Chamber of Commerce, which alone “has pledged to spend at least $50 million on political advertising this election cycle.”

Until we get either a right-minded Congress or a right-minded Supreme Court, or both, my proposed solution to put a stop to this unconscionable corporate spending is pretty simple: We need to make reforming the current campaign finance system a civil rights issue.

None of these large corporations, as far as I know, is specifically anti-women, anti-reproductive rights, anti-gay, anti-immigration reform, anti-voter rights, or, in more general terms, anti-civil liberties. However, every one of these companies, to advance its self-serving corporate and management agenda, is contributing – mostly anonymously – massive amounts of money to federal candidates who are some or all of these “antis”.

The civil rights community traditionally has been little interested in campaign finance reform. But it is indisputable that big business contributions to federal candidates are directly enabling insensitive immigration policies, regressive tax policies, continuing attacks on reproductive rights for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians, and blatant union busting. GE, for example, is not anti-civil liberties and rights, but many of the members of Congress which the U.S. Chamber supports with GE’s money (e.g., Coburn, DeMint, Bachmann) assuredly are.

This should spur all civil rights, civil liberties and labor organizations to demand an end to corporate political contributions that work against a fair and inclusive society. If Congress won’t respond, then we should take this demand to consumers and the marketplace.

We are at a critical inflection point in our electoral politics. We as a nation need to decide whether our government will be controlled by large corporations and a few extremely wealthy individuals or by the working majority of blue- and white-collar workers, small-business people, students and retirees.

Congress and the courts, the very institutions that are supposed to protect us from oligarchy, are now enabling it. To restore balance to our democracy, we now almost have no choice but to recognize – in terms of our civil rights – the implications of what the courts have done and what Congress refuses to do. And we must march again, or our civil liberties will be recast by those who will turn out to be little more than prejudicially elected handmaidens of those who have become the oligarchs of America.

PHOTO: Doug O’Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another, displays his winnings after cashing a 200-to-1 future bet on the horse at the Primm Valley Casino in Primm, Nevada, June 25, 2012. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus


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If we are going to forbid large corporations the right to voice opinions, we should forbid the media the right to voice opinions. There is no logical reason to give Westinghouse the right to voice political opinions through it’s subsidiary CBS and forbid Ford Motor Company to right to buy political ads.

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