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Supreme Court Green Lights Corporate Influence

The U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision on campaign finance could mean a huge increase in corporate political influence, while the rest of us struggle to make our voices heard.

William Lucy
William Lucy (Photo credit: John Melegrito)

Message from the Secretary-Treasurer

By William Lucy

The U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision on campaign finance could mean a huge increase in corporate political influence, while the rest of us struggle to make our voices heard.

The court, by a 5-4 majority, said in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations can spend unlimited amounts on candidates for federal office. President Obama called the ruling “a green light to a new stampede of special interest money,” enabling businesses to spend what they choose not only on “issue” ads that discuss political matters, but also on ads expressly supporting or opposing specific candidates. The decision lifts similar bans that existed in about half the states.

A Great Disparity

Corporations, according to the court’s majority, have the same free speech rights in politics as individuals; therefore, banning them from sponsoring ads to elect and defeat candidates infringes upon their First Amendment protections. A public relations firm, mocking the court, has even announced that it’s running for Congress — the logical conclusion of the court’s faulty ruling.

Keep in mind that it isn’t as if corporations have been silent observers. According to the non-partisan National Institute on Money in State Politics (, businesses spent $911 million on state candidates, committees and ballot measures in 2008. Labor unions contributed $221 million that same year. In 2006, the disparity was even greater: Corporations spent a whopping $1.3 billion compared to labor’s $208 million in contributions.

Considering that labor unions were drasticallyoutspent, it is a tribute to union members across the land — particularly the brothers and sisters of AFSCME — that we were so successful in the last two election cycles. The challenge for us, and for all progressives, will be expanding our gains even as corporate spending rises.

Political Corruption?

Think about it: Corporations could advertise candidates much as they market toothpaste or cell phones. Worse, we could be in for political corruption rivaling the bribery scandals of the Gilded Age a century ago.

Collis P. Huntington, one of the railroad magnates of that era, observed: “If you have to pay money [to a politician] to have a right thing done, it is only just and fair to do it.” Even Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, who eventually pressed for campaign finance laws, took questionable donations from corporations for his campaign in 1904.

Campaign finance laws exist for a reason, yet the Supreme Court chose to ignore history. The court also ignored current reality: Many of the same influences and pressures that affected our political system a hundred years ago continue today.

Taking Our Power Back

Unions are made up of ordinary people using politics to achieve a better life for all working families. Corporations generate wealth for their executives and shareholders. Their interest in politics isn’t about the public good; it’s about their private profit.

Any decision granting more power to corporate America takes power away from working families. But our duty, particularly heading into the 2010 elections, is to take our power back.

We must continue to donate to candidates and causes we support. As corporations ramp up their spending, we must also devote our time to phone banking, labor walks and all other get out the vote efforts. That’s the only way to elect candidates across the board — from President to county board supervisor — who share our values and hopes for America.

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