Doris "Granny D" Haddock turned 100 this week, just in time to see the US Supreme Court decimate the work of her life. Back in 1999, the Dublin, N.H. woman walked 3,200 miles to support campaign finance reform legislation - a tiny crusader against the corrupting power of big money in American politics. She marched to give the people's voice a fighting chance against the megaphones owned by the wealthy and well-connected. Last week, the court gave those forces an even bigger bull horn, ruling that corporate and special-interest cash can't be restricted in federal elections.
The court's decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission effectively guts the McCain-Feingold law Granny D was marching to support. It almost certainly overrides Massachusetts laws that ban corporate expenditures in local races. It even allows unlimited company cash to be spent in judicial elections, which, thankfully, don't exist in this state.
The decision wasn't a complete surprise. Since 1976, when the court ruled in Buckley vs. Valeo that money is a form of speech, it has been difficult to design workable limits on campaign spending. Still, the Citizens decision upends even marginal efforts to rein in campaign cash by conferring free-speech rights on businesses and special-interest groups. Hey, corporations are people, too.
The court leaned heavily on a 1978 decision involving a Massachusetts case, First National Bank of Boston vs. Bellotti, in which the court found that Massachusetts laws barring the bank from spending to defeat a ballot question were unconstitutional restrictions on its right to influence public policy. But the court explicitly said its ruling applied only to ballot questions, and "implies no comparable right in the quite different context'' of expenditures on behalf of candidates.
Last week the court dismissed that distinction as a mere footnote. And, even though the court repeatedly has recognized the potential corruption in unlimited campaign cash, Justice Anthony Kennedy blithely shrugged off the effects of this decision on an already angry and cynical populace. "The appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy,'' he wrote. As if wishing would make it so.
The problem is that corporations by definition don't have the electorate's interest at heart. They are driven, indeed required, to maximize their profits. It seems unlikely that any corporation will spend big to support a candidate whose platform - on environmental regulation, consumer protection, or corporate bonuses - would cost it money.
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Although Citizens United also lifts restrictions on spending by unions and non-profits, organized labor is dwarfed by a corporate sector with trillions in revenue. Plus, workers can withhold a portion of their union dues or fees that go to political activities they object to. Company shareholders don't currently have that right, short of dumping their stock. Far from promoting free speech, the Citizens ruling could actually coerce speech by forcing shareholders - or workers or consumers - to subsidize a politics they don't like.
President Obama called on Congress to correct certain effects of the court's ruling in his State of the Union address Wednesday. Some support "stand by your ad'' laws that now apply to candidates, requiring a company's CEO personally to say "I approve this message.'' If corporations are people, the reasoning goes, let's see their faces. Another fix would require the approval of shareholders before corporations could spend on political campaigns.
But aggrieved citizens need not wait for new laws. Last fall Apple, Nike, and a few "green'' energy companies resigned from the US Chamber of Commerce because the chamber opposed EPA efforts to curb greenhouse gases. Those company executives had heard from their customers, and realized the Chamber's activities conflicted with their brands.
Democracy is hard work. It requires constant vigilance, and a citizenry willing to speak out when public officials - or private corporations - use their power to distort the political process.
As dignitaries feted Granny D at the New Hampshire State House yesterday, she had some words on her blog for the Supreme Court: "You force us to defend our democracy - a democracy of the people and not the corporations - by going in breathtaking new directions,'' she wrote, "And so we shall.''
You heard the lady. Time to lace up the sneakers.