Opinion

Supreme Court’s campaign ruling: a bad day for democracy

US Congress must respond swiftly and forcefully to ensure that corporations do not take over the electoral process.

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Thursday was a bad day for democracy. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission paves the way for unlimited corporate and union spending in elections, and the drowning out of the average citizen’s voice in our public policy debates. In other words, the court has made a bad situation worse by enhancing the ability of the deepest-pocketed special interests to influence elections and the US Congress.

In its 5-to-4 decision, the Roberts Court declares outright that corporate expenditures cannot corrupt elected officials, that influence over lawmakers is not corruption, and that appearance of influence will not undermine public faith in our democracy. These are unsubstantiated claims that will change the ground rules of American democracy.

As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, “the court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Justice Stevens explained that corporations are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established. He lamented that the court used “a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel” when it struck down one of Congress’s most significant efforts to regulate the role that corporations and unions play in electoral politics. Stevens added that the court negated Congress’s efforts “without a shred of evidence.”

The fear factor of unlimited corporate political spending this decision creates will now fuel a rapidly escalating fundraising arms race in Congress. With big firms now free to spend jaw-dropping sums to oppose or intimidate them, elected officials will feel compelled to spend more and more of their time raising money, thereby further distracting Congress from the pressing issues of the day. In addition, this potential spending will create even greater fear of political reprisal for unpopular votes, expand conflicts of interest, and further undermine the public’s confidence in government’s ability to act in the public interest.

Congress must respond swiftly and forcefully to ensure that corporations do not take over the electoral process.

The path from here is clear: Congress must free itself from Wall Street’s grip so Main Street can finally get a fair shake. We need to change the way America pays for elections. Passing the Fair Elections Now Act would give us the best Congress money can’t buy. 

The Fair Elections Now Act was introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois and Rep. John Larson (D) of Connecticut. In the House, the bipartisan bill has attracted 125 additional cosponsors. Both bills blend small donor fundraising with public funding to reduce the pressure of fundraising from big contributors.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision means more business as usual in Washington, stomping on voters’ hope for change. Congress must take on the insider Washington money culture if it wants to make the changes voters are demanding. The way to do that is by passing the Fair Elections Now Act.

Bob Edgar is president of Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen’s lobbying organization promoting open, honest, and accountable government.

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