Citizens United aftershocks

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What are the consequences of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporations "unlimited spending in pursuit of political ends"? The world of campaign finance is new, confusing -- and very alarming.

Corporate groups are already using the ruling to raise lots of cash. Consider the recent work of a consortium of coal companies in West Virginia and Kentucky, including Massey Energy -- owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners were killed in April -- which is attempting to target "anti-coal" Democrats this fall.

In a letter to various coal concerns, Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group, said, "With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard. A number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats. We're requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort."

Among the interesting things about this is that 527 groups were relatively free to accept and spend cash even before Citizens United, but -- whether by confusion about the law, strategy among corporate fundraisers or both -- the decision might catalyze all manner of new corporate spending, anyway. Of course, 527's face looser rules, too. "As a result of Citizens United, 527's can now use corporate money to run TV ads within 60 days of the election, and can say anything they want about the candidate," says Joseph Sandler, former general counsel of the Democratic National Committee. "That's a big difference."

But corporations might want to think twice before jumping deeper into political races, attracting more attention in the process. According to a new Survey USA poll, 77 percent of all voters -- including 70 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents -- view corporate election spending as an attempt to bribe politicians rather than an expression of free speech that should not be limited.

Target is learning this the hard way. It donated $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, a group channeling funds to Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer -- known for his opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. As a result, the company now faces a consumer boycott and angry institutional shareholders who have asked for a "comprehensive review" of Target's political donation process. Best Buy also donated $100,000 to the group and is facing similar calls for a boycott.

Still, what we are seeing are just the initial stages of what will result in, among other things, a flood of corporate campaign cash. Conservative groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, are gearing up to spend $300 million to hammer Democratic candidates in 2010, according to a Democratic Party memo obtained by The Washington Post. And chief executives are in "wait-and-see" mode when it comes to direct political spending, according to a former counsel to the Federal Election Commission.

There is no way private citizens can match the resources available to corporations to make their voices heard. That's why a public backlash against the Citizens United decision is so critical. Progressives -- galvanized by the brazen activism of the court -- have responded by organizing around a far-reaching pro-democracy platform and have already scored some important wins.

Under pressure from New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio , Goldman Sachs said it would refrain from spending corporate funds on "electioneering communications." Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo pledged to follow suit. De Blasio has also created an online Corporate Spending Tracker, which displays the electoral spending policies and contact information for the 100 largest companies in America.

MoveOn has also embarked on what it calls its "most ambitious campaign ever" -- focused on overturning the court's decision through a constitutional amendment and passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public funds. (The Nation, of which I am the editor and publisher, is a coalition partner in this campaign.) Right now, the campaign is pursuing a goal of getting 100 members of Congress and candidates to sign a pledge endorsing this agenda before the congressional recess ends on Sept. 10.

Passing the Disclose Act -- which was recently defeated by yet another Republican filibuster -- would be a modest step in the right direction; it requires corporations to show how they spend money in elections. But the deep reforms needed to truly put democracy back in the hands of the people will require a long and tough-minded struggle by all small-d democrats.

In the mean time, corporations are free to do a lot more than just donate to less-regulated 527's. They have a blank check. As President Obama noted in his most recent weekly address, the Citizens United decision "allows big corporations to . . . buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads -- and worst of all, they don't even have to reveal who is actually paying for them. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation. You don't know if it's BP. You don't know if it's a big insurance company or a Wall Street bank. A group can hide behind a phony name like 'Citizens for a Better Future,' even if a more accurate name would be 'Corporations for Weaker Oversight.' "

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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