When the U.S. Supreme Court shamefully ruled last year that corporations could be viewed as having the rights of individual American citizens and thus could not be barred from spending their money to influence elections, it unleashed a tsunami of unchecked vested interest spending by corporations in election campaigns. Worse, the court also decided — wholly contrary to its core logic that corporations must be regarded essentially as individual citizens — that corporate spending on election activities need not be reported or capped.
As a result, corporate political spending thus may now be kept entirely secret, wholly unlike the reporting rules and fixed election-cycle limits that actually apply to individual Americans with far less money, and partisan PACs.
The consequence was predictable. Corporations anxious to help defeat politicians, mainly Democrats, whose regulatory views might be unfavorable to corporate interests — for example, on environmental or financial safeguards or health insurance policies for the public interest — poured tens of millions of dollars into the 2010 elections. And they are apparently ready to raise the ante significantly in the 2012 elections.
In the hope of stanching that corruptive flow of secret, big corporate spending, Democrats tried last year to pass the Disclose Act, which would have at least required corporate donors to publicly report their spending on political activities and their support of political groups. Such notification rules would have revealed the source of funding for many vested interest lobbies that sprang up after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.
But Republicans blocked the Disclose Act by filibuster. So corporate-funding lobbies had a field day swinging the election to the GOP. The most prominent conservative nonprofit groups, The New York Times reported, collectively spent more than $65 million on political activities connected to the 2010 elections without identifying their donors.
Among these were Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS; Americans for Prosperity, a group financed largely by the billionaire Koch brothers, who more recently helped fund the union-busting agenda in Wisconsin and other state legislatures; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a vessel of Republican business policy.
In an attempt to prevent a repeat of such secretive political meddling, Democrats filed a lawsuit last week designed to require the Federal Election Commission to force corporations to disclose their election-related spending.
Democrats reasonably contend that the FEC wrongly created a major loophole in election spending laws in 2007, when it ruled that only donors who gave at least $1,000 specifically for financing of political activities needed to disclose their donations. That narrow language, the lawsuit argued, effectively undermined disclosure requirements enacted in 2002 that otherwise would require disclosure of general support for political activities now under the Citizens United ruling.
Republicans, not surprisingly, have already moved to contest the lawsuit. Their surface argument is that Democrats are simply trying to punish their political enemies. What they fail to acknowledge is the larger value to American democracy of full disclosure of political spending and advertising, so its value can be weighed intelligently by voters.
America cannot improve economic prosperity and advancement of the broad American middle class when the political system is fundamentally shaped by entrenched corporate interests that ignore the common good. Republicans should join, or at least quit contesting, the effort to force open disclosure of election spending.