The hounds of hell

When the Citizens United decision came down last year, I concurred with Glenn Greenwald who opined that, odious as the decision was, based on the law as it was written, the decision was correct.

I haven’t had a chance to really dig into the decision, but my initial reaction was along the lines of: “Well, they’ve just pulled back the curtain. It’s not like corporations weren’t running the show anyway.” Between the lobbyists and the money that has been funneled, bundled, PAC’d or 527ed, big money already plays a big role in U.S. politics.

I don’t know what hounds of hell this ruling may release, and I am a firm proponent of publicly finance elections, but I can admit I see the Constitutional merits. As offensive as I found Citizens United’s attempt to pillory Hillary Clinton through Hillary Clinton, The Movie, I understand that free speech for Citizens United* applies just as much to them as it does the likes of Michael Moore, who released Fahrenheit 911, a movie highly critical of George W. Bush, in the fall of 2008 to critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination).

Constitutional purists from across the political spectrum, are saying that SCOTUS made the right decision, odious as it is to most of them the influence money has in politics. From what I can glean, their reactions have been “sauce for the goose” types of reactions. That is, the government cannot say one kind of political speech is permitted while another is not.  I remember the famous ACLU case in which they defended the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie. I got it way back then that no matter what the government  feels about what a group or person advocates,  government does not have the Constitutional right to silence them. I understood that if the government could silence THEM, the government could also silence ME.

That being said . . .

As I wrote last January, the answer is not to restrict one group at the expense of another, it is to either publicly finance elections or create laws that apply equally to all. If a political candidate is required to disclose all of their donors, cannot accept money from foreign sources, only accept donations up to a particular amount, then any other group engaging in the political process in the United States should be subject to those same rules.

Furthermore, corporations are not Citizens and the original premise upon which Citizens United was decided is based on the false premise that Corporations are due the same rights as Citizens.  In his dissent Justice Stevens writes:

The basic premise underlying the Court’s ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker’s identity, including its “identity” as a corporation. While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law. Nor does it tell us when a corporation may engage in electioneering that some of its shareholders oppose. It does not even resolve the specific question whether Citizens United may be required to finance some of its messages with the money in its PAC. The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

When I donate money to a candidate or cause, it is my decision alone. But a corporation is made up of hundreds, if not thousands of shareholders, often with vastly divergent political views. If and when I donate to a PAC (even one run by a corporation), I know what it stands for, what it will advocate for, etc. If I am a shareholder and I wanted to support my corporation in advocating for those policies, there is nothing to stop me from contributing to the PAC. On the other hand, I would be pissed as hell if my dividend was reduced to finance the political campaign of a candidate I opposed.  But that’s not the half of it.

 In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

This is the answer. “Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”

“I don’t know what hounds of hell this ruling might release . . . “

Well, this election season is giving us a good idea

These independent GOP allies represent the leading edge of the new world of campaign finance, 2010 edition. Sensing a possible takeover on Capitol Hill, they have aggressively tapped a network of angry corporate and conservative donors, a task made easier by the Supreme Court’s famously controversial January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision overturned decades of campaign finance law and gave the green light to corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads and other campaign activities that urge voters to oppose or support individual candidates. Some companies in sectors hit hard by new regulations — including financial, energy and health care interests — are grabbing for their checkbooks, and many are actively seeking the anonymity provided by new and older independent groups in the post-Citizens United world.


And now Democratic constituencies are responding. Jittery about a potential avalanche of corporate money flowing to GOP allies, several unions, led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, have begun plotting a counter-strategy — hiking their budgets, polishing their famous “ground game” tactics, and expanding cooperative efforts of their own to avoid a debacle in November.

Notwithstanding labor’s efforts, GOP allies have built a huge lead of almost five to one in ad spending compared to their Democratic counterparts, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. GOP-affiliated groups spent $24.8 million on Senate and House ads from Aug.1 to Sept. 20 while their Democratic rivals spent just $4.9 million in the same period, according to CMAG data.

What this amounts to, say veteran money and politics watchers, is a virtual Wild West, with fewer rules and more cash than ever. Republicans and Democrats each now boast ten or so deep-pocketed independent groups with plans to spend $10 million plus helping Senate and House candidates by running expensive ads and/or conducting get out the vote efforts. And they’re on track to spend, collectively, some $500 million dollars or more. With little oversight.

Oh, yay.  Thank goodness for the mute button. But, honestly, What The Fuck? Endless political hit ads do nothing to further our political discourse. They just make ad agencies, and media, rich.

Robert Reich has something to say about all of this. (Reprinted in full, since he does ask us to send his post to everyone we know)

The Secret Big-Money Takeover of America

Not only is income and wealth in America more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 80 years, but those hands are buying our democracy as never before – and they’re doing it behind closed doors.

Hundreds of millions of secret dollars are pouring into congressional and state races in this election cycle. The Koch brothers (whose personal fortunes grew by $5 billion last year) appear to be behind some of it, Karl Rove has rounded up other multi-millionaires to fund right-wing candidates, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funneling corporate dollars from around the world into congressional races, and Rupert Murdoch is evidently spending heavily.

No one knows for sure where this flood of money is coming from because it’s all secret.

But you can safely assume its purpose is not to help America’s stranded middle class, working class, and poor. It’s to pad the nests of the rich, stop all reform, and deregulate big corporations and Wall Street – already more powerful than since the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators.

Credit the Supreme Court’s grotesque decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates. (Even though 8 of 9 members of the Court also held disclosure laws constitutional, the decision invited the creation of shadowy “nonprofits” that don’t have to reveal anything.)

According to FEC data, only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.

Last week, when the Senate considered a bill to force such disclosure, every single Republican voted against it – thereby revealing the GOP’s true colors, and presumed benefactors. (To understand how far the GOP has come, nearly ten years ago campaign disclosure was supported by 48 of 54 Republican senators.)

Maybe the Disclose Bill can get passed in lame-duck session. Maybe the IRS will make sure Karl Rove’s and other supposed nonprofits aren’t sham political units. Maybe pigs will learn to fly.

In the meantime we face an election that marks an even sharper turn toward plutocratic capitalism than before – a government by and for the rich and big corporations — and away from democratic capitalism.

As income and wealth has moved to the top, so has political power. That’s why, for example, it’s been impossible to close the absurd tax loophole that allows hedge-fund and private-equity managers to treat much of their income as capital gains, subject to a 15 percent tax (even though they’re earning tens or hundreds of millions a year, and the top 15 hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion last year). Why it proved impossible to fund expanded health care by limiting the tax deductions of the very rich. Why it’s so difficult even to extend George Bush’s tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent of Americans without also extending them for the top 2 percent – even though the top won’t spend the money and create jobs, but will blow a $36 billion hole in the federal budget next year.

The good news is average Americans are beginning to understand that when the rich secretly flood our democracy with money, the rest of us drown. Wall Street executives and top CEOs get bailed out while under-water homeowners and jobless workers sink.

A Quinnipiac poll earlier this year found overwhelming support for a millionaire tax.

But what the public wants means nothing if our democracy is secretly corrupted by big money.

Right now we’re headed for a perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government. The three are obviously related.

We must act. We need a movement to take back our democracy. (If tea partiers were true to their principles, they’d join it.) As Martin Luther King once said, the greatest tragedy is “not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

What can you do?

1. Read Justice Steven’s dissent in the Citizens United case [LINK], so you’re fully informed about the majority’s pernicious illogic.

2. Use every opportunity to speak out against this decision, and embarrass and condemn the right-wing Justices who supported it.

3.  In this and subsequent elections, back candidates for congress and president who vow to put Justices on the Court who will reverse it. 

4. Demand that the IRS enforce the law and pull the plug on Karl Rove and other sham nonprofits.

5. If you have a Republican senator, insist that he or she support the Disclose Act. If they won’t, campaign against them.

6. Support public financing of elections.

7.  Join an organization like Common Cause, that’s committed to doing all this and getting big money out of politics. (Personal note: I’m so outraged at what’s happening that I just became chairman of Common Cause.)

8. Send this post to your friends (including any tea partiers you may know).

Well? Get busy!

7 thoughts on “The hounds of hell

  1. I disagree.

    The problem isn’t Citizens United, it’s the older Buckley v. Valeo decision that originally declared spending money to be a form of speech.

    Like it or not, the Citizens United decision follows the exact language of the First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;

    Congress shall make no law means exactly that. There’s nothing in the language of the Amendment that limits free speech to citizens, legal residents, or even natural persons. It is clear, unambiguous, and explicit.

    To my mind, the error is not in asserting that the right of free speech extends to corporations – it is the earlier ruling that money and speech are equivalent.

    Think about it for a minute. Exactly how much would “freedom of the press” really be worth if it didn’t extend to the New York Times Company, because it is a corporation?


    1. I get what you’re saying. My point is that if a candidate or political action committee or party is required to disclose who their donors are, and cannot accept foreign money, the same should apply to these other groups who are engaging in electioneering. The same rules. Right now, that isn’t happening. And it shows.

      Your last paragraph is exactly one of the points Greenwald argued in his review of Citizens United. He asked why should this group be denied the right to say whatever they wanted within 30 days of an election when every day, 24 hours a day, the big news corporations were engaging in all kinds of electioneering. And I agreed with him. Sucky as the CU decision was, it was correct. Equal protection, and all that.

      I agree with you that the decision that speech and money are equivalent is an error.


  2. I am personally for wide open disclosure of campaign funds. Records should be maintained and be freely available. That would allow CU to stand. I do not, however, think that foreign corps have the same rights as American corps. Just sayin’.


    1. Neither do I. If a foreign national cannot give to U.S. candidates, a foreign corporation should not be allowed to do so either. I hope that readers do not think that I meant that it is okay.


  3. Wow. You came back with a one two punch. Thanks for getting through the entire Stevens dissent. I just couldn’t wade through that one, too.

    I agree that on the face of it, the CU decision is about equal protection and should stand. But functionally that isn’t what’s happening and I think Scalia et al saw this coming and are probably grinning ear to ear.

    If this campaign season of despair doesn’t convince one and all that we need public and highly transparent financing of campaigns – and robust take no prisoners campaign finance reform – then nothing will.

    The cynical fallout of the CU decision could be the destruction of an otherwise healthy electoral system. A remedy must be at the top of the Action List after this horrific mid-term season.



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