As we go to press, Americans are waiting to see how the Supreme Court will rule on the Affordable Care Act. But the Court’s right-wing majority has already guaranteed that insurance companies and other corporations will continue to have dramatically more say in American politics than citizens. With a pair of decisions on campaign finance, the Court reaffirmed its status as the branch of government most consistently in the service of the 1 percent, at a time when the concentration of income, wealth and political power is reminiscent of the Gilded Age.
The Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision had already given corporations the right to spend freely on behalf of candidates, causes and parties. But that ruling, as dark as it was, left some loopholes. Labor unions, while dramatically less well funded than corporations, still had significant leeway to spend on campaigns. Reformers also hoped that state and local governments would be able to enact limits on corporate campaign overreach.
“The Supreme Court’s doubling down on its damage to our democracy makes it imperative that we redouble our efforts to fight back.” --former US Senator Russ Feingold
No more. A June 21 Court ruling in effect requires public employee unions to get permission from their members for special assessments used to advance a political agendas. Traditionally these unions had “opt out” clauses, which allowed workers in an organized shop to indicate when they did not want their fees spent on political action. Now public sector unions must adopt a burdensome “opt in” system, in which workers must give their assent before the union may spend on political initiatives. Thus, in the wake of the Wisconsin defeat, when the assault on public employee unions has never been greater, the Court has made it harder for them to respond to the mounting threats.
Just as disturbing is the Court’s 5-4 decision, issued on June 25, which struck down a century-old Montana anti-corruption law barring corporations from contributing to candidates or parties. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the majority wrote. “There can be no serious doubt that it does.”
No matter how the Court rules on healthcare, corporations will now have even more power to shape the debate about responses to it. The decisions also make it harder to move toward the healthcare reform we really need: a Medicare-for-all system that would eliminate profiteering, cut costs and give every American quality care.
The same goes for every other public policy debate. “The Court has adopted a purely corporate agenda,” says former Senator Russ Feingold. “The Supreme Court’s doubling down on its damage to our democracy makes it imperative that we redouble our efforts to fight back.”
That fight-back can take many forms. The November elections become even more important, as America needs a president who will nominate, and a Senate that will confirm, Justices who recognize the threat posed by Citizens United and related decisions. There are legislative remedies, of course, from national disclosure requirements to state and local public financing reforms to laws requiring shareholder approval of a corporation’s campaign expenditures. But the current Court’s “purely corporate agenda” (not to mention GOP legislative roadblocks) suggests that even carefully drawn legislative remedies could be overturned by its hard-right majority. For that reason, we support stepped-up efforts to pass a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United. As Senator Bernie Sanders has warned, America cannot be “a nation of the superrich, by the superrich and for the superrich.”