The Case Against Corporate Speech
by Ralph Nader and Robert Weissman,
Wall Street Journal
Last month, by a vote of 5 to 4, the U.S.
Supreme Court gave carte blanche to the world's largest corporations
to spend unlimited sums of money to support or oppose candidates
for elected office. Big Business domination of Washington and
state capitals will now intensify.
The case of Citizens United portends dire consequences for the
nation's constitutional premise of "we the people,"
not we the corporations. Our constitution, at its origins and
through all of its amendments, makes no mention of corporate entities,
only human beings and their government.
For 120 years, it was not Congress but the Supreme Court that
expanded the definition of "persons" to include for-profit
corporations for the purposes of applying constitutional protections.
For 30 years, the court has granted First Amendment speech protections
to corporations as "artificial persons."
But not until last month has the court
declared that the First Amendment gives corporations the right
to spend unlimited money to influence elections. The court majority,
self-styled believers in precedent and judicial restraint, overturned
two major Supreme Court decisions and reversed decades of campaign-finance
laws aimed at preventing corporations from having undo influence
over local, state and national elections.
Granted, existing campaign-finance rules
have been inadequate. Regular news reports document how corporate
spending debases elections and elected officials. But that doesn't
mean things can't get worse. The court has challenged whatever
social mores are left that view no-holds-barred corporate cash
register politics as unseemly.
The disparities between individual contributions
and available corporate dollars mock any pretense of equal justice
under the law. A total of $5.2 billion from all sources was spent
in the 2008 federal election cycle (which includes 2007 and 2008),
according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For the same
two-year period, ExxonMobil's profits were $85 billion. The top-selling
drug, Pfizer's Lipitor, grossed $27 billion in sales during that
Such disparities invite corporations to
spend whatever they believe necessary to further entrench the
corporate state. The money they now spend will be used to reward
friends and punish opponents.
Corporations know that money makes a big
difference when it comes to blocking protections for workers,
consumers and the environment. Wall Street, health insurance and
drug companies, fossil fuel and nuclear power companies, and defense
corporations have been hard at work defeating common-sense reforms
that would make them more accountable.
Do we want more elected officials to believe
that to challenge corporate agendas is to risk their career?
There is every reason to expect that there
will be much more direct corporate electoral funding in the wake
of Citizens United. Funneled without limit through trade associations
and shadowy front groups able to run vicious attack ads without
identifying their corporate patrons, such lucre will deter good
candidates from running for office because they won't want to
have anything to do with such dirty politics.
What can be done about this accelerating
drift into the muck?
In the absence of a future court overturning
Citizens United, the fundamental response should be a constitutional
amendment. We must exclude all commercial corporations and other
artificial commercial entities from participating in political
activities. Such constitutional rights should be reserved for
real people, including, of course, company employees, to enhance
a government of, by and for the people.
Corporations are not humans. They do not
vote. They should not be accorded a constitutional right to influence
elections or public policies, especially given their enormous
embedded privileges and immunities compared to real people.
While the arduous amendment process is
underway, the progressive response to Citizens United rests with
several legislative and administrative initiatives.
First, the Fair Elections Now Act in the
House and Senate would provide candidates a base of funding to
run viable campaigns without being indentured to corporate money.
But these bills would not prevent corporations from overwhelming
the public funding.
Second, a strong shareholder-protection
policy should limit corporate political spending. This would require
executives to get support from an absolute majority of their shareholders
before spending any money on politics.
Third, as the nation's largest customer,
the government could refuse, by statute or executive order, to
contract with or provide subsidies, handouts and bailouts to any
company that spends money directly in the electoral arena. This
would help avoid corruption. No longer would Citigroup or General
Motors, which were saved by taxpayers and are wards of Washington,
be able to lobby as if they were stalwarts of sink-or-swim free
As Justice John Paul Stevens, writing
for the minority in Citizens United, demonstrated, the Framers
did not intend for the First Amendment to confer protections on
businesses beyond freedom of the press. The robust guarantees
of the First Amendment are vital for real, live human beings,
to ensure their expressive and democratic participative rights
are protected. There can be no level playing field between the
giant multinational corporations and individual citizens without
such differential rights.
It is worth recalling that representative
democracy is rule by the people. Corporations, first chartered
into existence over 200 years ago by the states, were meant to
be our servants, not our masters. Especially in the aftermath
of Citizens United, it is time to right this relationship.
Democracy in America