We need to make campaign finance a civil rights issue

By Leo Hindery
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

21 comments

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The writer gets it wrong right from the start, and reveals his abject lack of knowledge about how free speech works, as well as his ignorance to what any politically aware American knows about “tax-exempt organizations”. All kinds of groups, including the NRA (and its better, the National Association for Gun Rights), conservation groups, tax reform groups, you name it, have ALWAYS been able to advocate for positions with anonymous money.

Only fools can ignore the blatant fact that without anonymity for issue advocacy, our Founding Fathers – instead of conceiving the greatest and freest nation on Earth – would have ended up in the gallows. Why should a businessperson not be allowed to use his or her money as he or she sees fit, to protect their rights against a thuggish government set on confiscating anything is sight?

No, instead, let’s limit corporations but allow government to abuse its power with impunity. The writer here correctly sees that his radical Left-wing agenda cannot be imposed upon the rest of the nation unless the private sector is shut up or shut down. Have it his way, the former will happen, have it Obama’s way, it will be the latter.

Yes, my friend, I and millions like me are “anti-” your sick and perverted, anti-freedom, anti-Constitution agenda. We will never surrender our rights to your kind.

Posted by UsuallyRight | Report as abusive

You argue that to “restore balance to our democracy” and achieve a “fair and inclusive society” the United States MUST adopt sensitive immigration policies, encourage union activity and progressive tax policies. I strongly disagree. The society you want is NOT the one I want (or can afford).

Even Europe is beginning to realize that to accept anyone and everyone willing or able to “jump a border” as having legitimate claim to being “part of” a given society is to deny those who built and pay for that society their fair say as to how THEIR resources are to be prioritized and spent. When a liberal muslim immigration rate virtually assures in relatively few years, considering the muslim birth rate, that ethnic Europeans will become minorities in their own countries, it is NOT the “original society” that benefits.

To encourage unions, which already control the federal bureaucracy AND their own salary and benefit negotiations and related outcomes, is to reward the privileged few with spoils extracted from taxpayers who do not enjoy comparable salaries, benefits or retirement. Federal law requires that union members perform the work necessary to build and maintain federal and much of state and local infrastructure. “We, the people” can’t afford such favoritism nor do we like it one bit.

Governments, by their tax policies, can create any kind of society they want. Our government is obviously one by and for idiots.

In a world of SEVEN BILLION humans, we reward families for having more and more children with numerous tax benefits. In fact, it is the least educated and least productive among us that are having the most children. In order to keep THOSE children off the streets, we dumb down our schools and the “value of tax-supported public education”.

Our home ownership incentives go so far beyond basic needs that they have made the 4,000 sq. ft. McMansion the “average American house”of today. “Vacation houses” of the well-to-do and millionairs’ estates qualify for tax deductions. Taxpayer funds bail out incompetent bankers and investors because “our” representatives have thrown the full support of the U.S. treasury behind home loans unsustainable from day one.

People who know better allowed themselves to be convinced that the U.S. economy was immune to an economic history of boom and bust, and bought into the idea that working people could afford to buy, furnish, clean, maintain and pay off these energy hog homes. Now they encounter adverse economic winds, obviously unanticipated, and so “the answer” is wailing and pleading for the government (i.e. the taxpayer, again) to bail their sorry butts out.

The “answer” to our government’s problems is NOT our present elective process. It is that “we, the people don’t think. Neither party has “the answer”, which is to have a national debate as to what kind of society “we, the people can afford. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out in round figures what “available tax revenue is. Until those who shovel it out get a national consensus as to our genuine national needs, and agree on necessary priorities between these, there will never be an end to federal government expansion and the taxes necessary to support same.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@oneofthesheep. Nice rant, makes sense.
But what do you think of the points mr. hindery so clearly makes? First and foremost being that because of the recent Congressional and Supreme Court decisions (or lack thereof) we have a corrupt electoral process – dominated by the wealthy using in some cases, corporate profits that could be returned to the shareholders. Well?

Posted by codder | Report as abusive

The problem is not that the rhetoric is sold, the problem is that the rhetoric is purposely deceitful. The real issues like famine, immigrant refugees, or government subsidies. This campaign does not discuss policies, but personalities. What is needed is not a brilliant man, but a brilliant plan. There is not talk of the specifics of Mitt Romney’s tax overhaul or the specific details of Obamacare. These policy decisions are always hidden from the general public, because the oligarchy profits off of pork barrel projects and tax loopholes.

These, and many legislative decisions, are overly vague and suspicious where they should be simple and elegant. Only with new leadership with a firm stance against oligarchic control will anything beneficial be done for the people of America.

Posted by eddiefresh | Report as abusive

What is clear is that the classic American corporation as a legal “person” must go, one way or another. Time for the execution of a Frankenstein monster and the creation of a civilized business entity that does not attempt to rule our country.

And time to force existing corporations to change form, perhaps through 200% of revenue taxation.

They are bad citizens who abuse the humans they share this country with. Time to end them.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

@usagadfly,

Your opinion in the first part of your first sentence is clear. You are entitled to that, right or wrong.

When you suggest such change “one way or the other” and talk of the “execution” of the corporate form of business entity you go wayyy off the “deep end”. You offer no details of such mythical “civilized business entity” you envision.

“200% revenue taxation” of corporations, would bring a majority of non-governmental commerce to an immediate and permanent halt. The world economy would plunge into an economic “dark age” none of us would live to see end.

If you genuinely hate the life you have today that much, a fellow in jail in Colorado named Holmes may be your intellectual “soul mate”. The other possibility is that you’re an immature person still living at home that THINKS they know everything. After all, on the internet, no one knows you’re a cat. (big smile)

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Here, here – there is no such entity in the constitution or the bill of rights identified as a “corporation”. There are only people. Corporations have no right to free speech, no right to bear arms, no right to assembly.etc. etc. etc. They are essentially a legal “fantasy”, They do not breathe, drink, bleed, they don’t go to jail, they can’t run for office. They are represented in the government by the individual “people” shareholders (excluding institutions which also devolve into “people”).
A corporation exists for one extraordinarily pure purpose – to generate money for its shareholders. (Period, Period, Period). No money, no shareholders and shareholder devolve into people.
A government (such as the USA) has a very different purpose. It is to preserve the social morays that its “people” population share. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”)
The astute will note that government exists (especially in a democracy) for a qualitative purpose (quality of life – (get it?), not statistically measurable) while corporations exist for a quantitative purpose (money; eminently measurable, but incredibly deceptive ).
Is the comparison too simple;lacks sophistication, misses the subtlety? I concur, but I don’t want the infinite digression to the detail to override the spirit of United States of America.
USA remains a phenomenal experiment (of some 200 years, over 5,000 years of recorded history) trumping the “might makes right” imbedded in our human DNA. We have reached beyond our inherent, imbedded constraints and today there are many more “democracies” (at least in name), than have ever existed before.
We cannot blink, we cannot permit the “might makes right” corporate culture to deter us from a world where “we hold these truths to be self-evident”

Posted by MikeAlso | Report as abusive

We definitely need real Campaign Finance Reform. The economy is highly concentrated. Wealth is highly concentrated. That means power is highly concentrated. With these court winnings and deregulation, the elite corporations and the wealthy seek to control our democracy hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Each and every shareholders should fight for their civil rights – Corporations should not be allowed to use their money without telling them exactly where and who they are supporting and explaining how it increases shareholder value. That’s the way to make capitalism work better.

Posted by sociocapitalism | Report as abusive

That’s right. It’s a civil rights issue. Campaign finance reform.

Posted by sociocapitalism | Report as abusive

[...] respond to Citizens United, Harvard law professor …The National Law JournalKXLH Helena News -Reuters Blogs (blog)all 36 news articles » Posted by admin on July 25th, 2012 Tags: [...]

Me says;

“American Politics, the Comedy of the Millennium.

American Voters, the Comedians of the Millennium.

American Government, the Best Money Can Buy.

American Tax Payers, the Best Suckers You Can Find.”

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

I think that as an investor, I must speak up that the hidden corporate contributions are contrary to the interests of the real owners of the corporation – the shareholders. In the last decade or two CEO looting has become rampant. The CEO appoints directors who represent him and not the shareholders. They then vote him ridiculously large compensation. To allow these folks to circumvent the democratic process using other peoples money is just wrong.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

There is no such thing as civil rights. Civil rights is a made up term for people to get handouts and special treatment.

Yes, campaign finance is a problem.

Simple solution: eliminate all campaign contributions. Anyone can donate money to a campaign fund; the fund gives each candidate a small amount to spend depending upon office, such as $100,000 for a presidential candidate; the candidate can spend no more than the amount received from the fund. This take the money out of politics.

This is NOT what the author is proposing. He wants the laws changed so the Democrats can raise more money than the Republicans. He is not for an improvement that is fair to ALL, he just wants a better deal for his side.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

We must start with term limits for congress and the SCOTUS. Then, or at the same time, reform campaign finance. Without the term limits any changes made will just be changed again within 18 months by the powerbases in congress.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Corporations are not citizens and not voters and therefore in my mind do not have standing to make monetary political contributions. Individual citizens are the basis of this country, have the right to free speech and to their vote and that is the only entity that I believe should have the right to make monetary political contributions. No contributions should be allowed from any other entity other than from a US citizen and all contributions should be public record.

Posted by mplehner | Report as abusive

So this is the big issue in the US. Campaign finance reform.

Never mind that thousands of Mexican peasants flood across the border, that Iran is building a bomb, that the educational system produces citizens poorly educated that make it 25th on the list of educational achievement among developed nations.

All those things will be fixed the out of touch author would no doubt argue if campaign finance is sorted out.

Yeh really. People like Hindery are the problem, not the solution.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

ALLSOLUTIONS,
Perhaps if fair election funding ‘disfavours’ one side of the aisle, it is not that the proposal unfairly supports one side or other, but rather that one side is inherently more representative of the views of the population.

the fact you don’t want to hear.

Believe me, I hate the Democrats as much as anybody, but any fool can see the Republicans do not actually want to help the average man, they would prefer to posture and help themselves to the public’s money, via privatization.

Note I am speaking as an investor, tired of the management class in America stealing all the wealth of the companies they run for themselves (30+ year trend)

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

The writer is disingenuous with the facts, very selective and clearly biased towards Democrats.
So his article lacks any credibility.
Some of the biggest campaign contributions are via the Unions to the Democratic party in return for ……. screwing the country and making American industry uncompetitive.
Do Union members actually get to vote on the amounts of these donations ……

Posted by EXess | Report as abusive

The author clearly identifies 4 of 5 overarching threats to a governing structure defined as A Federal Republic using a Representative Democracy as an OS; which quite obviously, has, little, if any, resemblance to, use or create any threat whatsoever to the current governing structure that took Federal government power and structure so successfully, effortlessly, and unrecognized by a large majority of American citizens. The new power elites kept the same the names and superstructure used in the ex- U.S. Constitution that created a Federal Republic superstructure using a Representative Democracy for operational. However the tripartite separation of governmental power, i.e. really means responsibility, authority and accountability, was easily abused, quickly misused, disregarded prior to midterm Congressional and State Governor elections then basically discarded during the last quarter of 2003;The hyped and overblown bloviating about computers causing a year 2K disaster, while the Actual 2K catastrophe; a successful coup de tat and government power grab was unreported by corporate owned MSM and totally ignored by a majority of American citizens and voters.
The actual and real danger of the 5th overarching threat wasn’t that three disparate socio-cultural forces and believer & supporters might put aside their contrasting moral belief differences & combine to prevent a presidential candidate, they had been pre-programmed to believe was the Great Enemy of their faith and fear what he would do if elected, nor that their party candidates would incessantly repeat the political smears and lies tested by focus groups and the highest credibility and believability polling scores nor the continual use of buzzword phrases fanning racial bigotry and religious hatred of their base but the timing of when those three combined & the effects that caused grew geometrically, the willingness to implement takeover action plans and rapid response by leadership group members, the apathy, unconcern and thoughtless assuming by a majority of American voters, that because all changes of political power had resulted through elections that all future political power changes would be the same.

Mr. Hindrey, your four threats plus mine, will not and do not pose any danger whatsoever to the current governing structure or those holding political power. IMHO the factors you perceive as threats are indicative of their belief that, the freedoms from government and civil rights once constitutionally protected and guaranteed, that have been legislated away, diluted, abrogated or ignored, without legal challenges, major mass protests marches and widespread civil disobedience by citizens , their hold on political power and control over society’s wealth is so complete they can do away with most of the most expensive or onerous social control methods installed during the early years of their successful coup.

The present is what ‘Ike’ warned America about in his presidency of the 50′s and what Sinclair Lewis said earlier, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive

@JBitn,

Maybe if you hacked your rant up into identifiable thoughts and coherent sentences by appropriate use of punctuation it could make some sense?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Giving money to buy ads is not necessarily buying votes or influence, and the small giving figures may only indicate diminished interest in the candidates and government. Why either should the weight be swung to those without property to give, but who want government to give them some? Aside from this the donations do represent a sort of redistribution and Keynesian stimulus of their own. But for ppl who speak as the author the idea of a private sector doesn’t even exist.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by ywatkins | Report as abusive