Corporations vs. democracy

Tenzin Pelkyi - co-president of University of Minnesota chapter of Democracy Matters

On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a century of law that had prevented corporations and unions from spending unlimited amounts of money from their treasuries to influence political speech in the landmark decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

President Barack Obama famously declared that the controversial ruling “strikes at our democracy itself” and that it would effectively “open the floodgates for special interests âÄî including foreign corporations âÄî to spend without limit in our elections.”

By a vote of five to four, the Supreme Court decided to reverse decades-old court precedent by overturning the ban on corporate spending limits that curtailed the influence of lobbyists and wealthy special interests concerned only with their bottom line. This came at the expense of the American people, who have incurred the following costs as a result of special-interest influence in Washington: the BP spill and deep-sea oil drilling, soaring costs of loans for college students, global warming, the poor job market for college graduates, the $1.1 trillion in taxes spent thus far on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soaring profits for big banks and oil companies and much more.

In last yearâÄôs elections, an unprecedented flood of money from wealthy special interests âÄî financial institutions such as Wall Street, the health care industry, big oil, gas and others âÄî was released into our political system thanks to the Citizens United decision. The worst part of it was that these groups were not required to disclose who was funding their campaign ads, thus leaving the American public without any knowledge of who was trying to influence their vote.

In direct response to the Citizens United ruling, the DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) Act would require groups that run campaign ads to disclose the identity of their donors. It was twice blocked by a Republican minority in the Senate last year despite widespread public support.

Another promising legislative proposal modeled on similar successful public financing laws in several states and cities would give federal candidates a way to run competitive races without depending on wealthy corporate donors. The Fair Elections Now Act would create a hybrid public-financing system, with small donations as well as public grants going to qualified candidates for the House and Senate, so that elected officials would be held directly accountable to constituents in their home states rather than to giant multinational corporations and industries.

Last Friday, the government watchdog group Common Cause filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice asking it to investigate whether intimate ties to conservative activist groups âÄî including the billionaire Koch brothers, major Tea Party funders who spent millions to influence the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections âÄî should force Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to recuse themselves from the Citizens United decision. They have also alleged that Justice Thomas failed to report his wifeâÄôs income from the conservative Heritage Foundation and Liberty Central on financial disclosure forms over the last six years. Despite the recent controversy, Justice Scalia accepted a personal invitation from Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann to a closed-door congressional “teaching event” scheduled for today.

We are now living in the post-Citizens United era. The looming specter of a corporate takeover of our democracy has sparked off a national grassroots movement for government reform based on a platform of transparency and accountability. Although it has faced major hurdles along the way, what it has demonstrated is that the American public ultimately has the power to decide what direction our society will take. If we are to make any real progress in the movement, we must all first come to realize the troubled state of our democracy so that we may truly begin to move forward toward a more just and equitable future.