In the 14 months since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned restrictions and allowed for unlimited corporate spending in campaigns for elections, the political landscape of America already has dramatically changed.
During the 2010 midterm elections in November, the first major cycle after the decision, so-called “independent groups” spent more than four times as much money as they did in the 2006 midterm elections.
An analysis by Public Citizen, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, found that such spending totaled $294.2 million last year, up from just $68.9 million in 2006.
Of that amount, nearly half — $138.5 million — came from 10 well-heeled groups.
More troubling, Public Citizen found groups that didn’t provide any information about their sources of money collectively spent $135.6 million, or more than 46 percent of the cash doled out.
Also, of the 75 congressional races in which the seat eventually changed from one political party to the other, spending by outside groups favored the winning candidate in 60 contests.
In other words, say critics of the decision, our government is now for sale to the highest bidder.
They’re not alone.
Just six days after the ruling, President Obama said in his State of the Union Address, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
The high court’s contentious 5-4 decision in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment. Essentially, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same rights as individuals and that the spending of money equates to protected speech.
As part of the backlash, a nationwide grassroots group has formed called Move to Amend. The organization hopes to collect enough signatures to begin the multi-year process for amending state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution, and end what it believes is the improper expansion of “corporate personhood” into the political realm.
Greg Coleridge, who helped form Move to Amend and serves on its steering committee, says the group began organizing the day the Supreme Court made its decision. Since then, more than 104,000 people have signed the group’s online petition, which states:
We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:
• Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.
• Guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our vote and participation count.
• Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate “preemption” actions by global, national, and state governments.
Along with collecting signatures, Move to Amend hosts events across the nation and encourages supporters to contact politicians, write letters to their local news outlets, distribute petitions and educate as many people as possible about the ruling.
Many of Move to Amend’s objections to corporate personhood date back more than 100 years before the Citizens United v.
“Certainly (that) decision was a spark that slapped people in the face, made them wake up and see that our nation is not currently being ruled by the people,” Coleridge says. “Our policy makers and regulatory agencies are being heavily influenced by corporations that were never intended to have such influence.”
Laura Kinsey, who is the administrator for the Facebook page of Move to Amend’s central Ohio chapter, says last year’s elections served as her wakeup call.
“I learned more and more about corporate constitutional rights and became very passionate about the issue,” Kinsey says. “Giving corporations free speech in this manner gives them too much power over the electorate, this concentrates the power of the decision making process and that corrupts democracy.”
The decision, however, does have its backers.
“We support the decision and believe that protecting the spending of one’s own money in the political arena is a preeminent protection of the First Amendment,” says Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.
Like many in the GOP, Triantafilou believes the Supreme Court’s ruling will help restore equality in the funding of political campaigns, which he says has been dominated by labor unions. Further, he disputes the contention that it had a major impact in 2010’s midterm elections.
“I wouldn’t say the ruling had a huge effect in 2010, but it is certainly working to level the playing, for 2012,” Triantafilou says.
“The untold story of the 2008 election was the obscene amount of dollars President Obama spent to win his election … he outspent Republicans by an obscene margin and got a massive amount of money from labor unions. Big union dollars have always been part of campaigns without restriction, and in 2012 the playing field will be level.”
The facts, though, don’t support the GOP’s allegations.
Of the top 10 groups that spent the most on independent expenditures in the 2010 elections (excluding the party committees), just two were labor unions and they spend a fraction of the amount spent by groups with corporate ties.
The unions — SEIU and AFSCME — donated $15.7 million.
By comparison, the top six spenders were all corporate-related groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Action Network and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads — and spent a total of $56.2 million.
That means Big Business spent more than three times as much as the union-backed groups.
Coleridge, who like Kinsey feels the ruling absolutely had a significant impact in the elections, says the decision tips the scale further toward corporate interests and make matters worse for the average American.
“Voices of the people are going to have less and less impact because corporations’ money now serves as the equivalent of a megaphone, which will drown out the concerns of regular citizens,” Coleridge says.
Triantafilou rejects that notion.
“Countless people work for corporations and often have their interests represented by the corporations for which they work,” he says.
Despite differing opinions, Coleridge and Kinsey believe that perspectives on the Citizens United v. FEC ruling don’t conform to traditional party-line beliefs, adding the pillars of Move to Amend’s mission reach across a broad political spectrum.
Kinsey pointed to a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based survey research firm that frequently works with Democratic politicians. Hart’s poll found that 77 percent of voters believe corporations have more control of our political system than does average citizens.
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, worries the impact of special interests will be even worse in the 2012 elections.
“As our report shows, secretive corporate and billionaire donors exerted an outsized influence over Election 2010,” Weissman has said.
“Their spending now casts a pall over all lawmaking, because any members of Congress who challenge corporate interests know they now risk facing a barrage of attack ads in the next election,” he adds.
The United States was founded on the notion of individual rights, and individuals can rein in corporate power, Coleridge says.
“People have been conditioned to believe that corporations have a seat at the table when it comes to governing,” he says.
“If we can change the culture to help people recognize our relationship with these corporations is diametrically opposed to what is used to be, we can change the culture of the system.”