That’s what the Supreme Court of the United States decided today in a split decision, 5-4.¹ It’s best to consider this decision with some historical background. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt called on Congress to restrict corporations, railroads and banks from using their own money in federal election campaigns. The Tillman Act was enacted and since then, additional statutes have been enacted in an attempt to limit the influence of the wealthy on the outcome of federal elections.
Today, the highest court in the land overturned these laws indicating that the First Amendment of the Constitution gives corporations, just like individuals, a right to spend their own money on political campaigns if they so choose.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.²
The Supreme Court heard its first challenge of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign, which restricted the monetary contributions that could be made to political candidates, in 1976. It affirmed certain parts of the law, but rejected others. Interestingly, that Supreme Court stated that the law served the basic interest of preserving the integrity of the electoral process by restricting contributions.
New law was created in 2002 creating several additional restrictions on the financing of political campaigns. Again, the Supreme Court heard challenges to the law and again, they upheld certain aspects and rejected others.
Today’s decision is a sweeping one that will impact everyday American citizens in a deeply profound way. Corporations are now free to spend unlimited sums of money to run political ad campaigns for or against political candidates. They still have limitations on direct contributions, but they can run television, radio and Internet ads, direct mailing, and any other form of campaign advertising they choose without restriction.
How does this ruling impact us all? Our elected officials, sent to Washington to serve our interests and represent us with their vote, will be subjected to immense pressure to succumb to whatever interests the corporate lobbyists bring to their attention. Should they believe these interests do not align with those of their constituents, and try to vote against them, they will face a barrage of advertising against them and their opponent will literally get a free ride in the advertising market as the corporate interests try to get their candidate into office.
You might be wondering how the voting went among our nine Supremes. The five Republican nominees, including George W. Bush’s two, voted in favor of allowing free corporate spending. Justice Roberts stated that he was not prepared to “embrace a theory of the 1st Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern.”¹
In the dissent, Justice Stevens wrote that today’s decision was “a radical change in the law … that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions — and the narrow interests they represent — in determining who will hold public office.” He went on to state what should be obvious to all of us. “Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office.” He added that under today’s decision “multinational corporations controlled by foreign governments” would have the same rights as Americans to spend money to tilt U.S. elections.¹
The White House wasted no time in issuing a statement on this ruling:
Statement from the President on Today’s Supreme Court Decision
With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That’s why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less.³
The dilemma here is that to change the Supreme Court’s decision, the US Constitution would have to be amended. That’s no easy process. Two thirds of both Houses of Congress would have to vote to propose an amendment, and then three fourths of the state legislatures would have to approve it. Only 27 amendments have ever been ratified and there have been thousands of proposals.
Today, corporations Rule the Day.
1. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission No. 08-205
2. US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendment I
3. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary whitehouse.gov