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Supreme Court Removes Controls on Corporate Funding of Political Campaigns

bribemoneyOne of the most obvious themes throughout the debate on health reform has been the effect of special interest funding on the voting behavior of our elected officials. Time and time again we’ve seen that our so-called representatives are actually working for the health sector, especially the health insurers and Big Pharma, rather than the people who voted them into office.

The right wing majority in the Supreme Court made the situation worse yesterday by rolling back the twenty year old ruling that said corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for their own campaign ads. They also struck down part of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred issue-based advertising paid for by unions and corporations in the closing days of election campaigns.

It leaves in place the ban on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions. It also doesn’t change the rules allowing corporations, unions and others to create Political Action Committees (PACs) that can contribute directly to candidates. PACs must be funded with voluntary contributions from members, employees and other individuals, not from corporate or union funds. “PACs account for less than thirty percent of total contributions in U.S. Congressional races, and considerably less in presidential races.” – Wikipedia.org.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who presented the decision, wrote – “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.” He and his right wing colleagues also reasoned that a central provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance act violated the First Amendment by restricting corporations from funding political messages in the run-up to elections. The liberal members of the Supreme Court called the majority opinion “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have…fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

The likely impact of the ruling
The effects of the ruling will almost certainly be felt very soon, so we can expect a barrage of additional advertising in the run up to the congressional elections this year. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the health reform debate, there appear to be no legal checks and balances on the accuracy of those ads. Special interest groups can tell blatant lies, or libel candidates, with little fear that anyone will have time or the money to outspend them and correct the facts. Unfortunately, uninformed, or misinformed, voters tend to make decisions using their emotions, which are easily influenced by skillful advertisers, rather than facts and logic.

The health reform debate has been largely driven by the health sector, but this year we can expect the unions, the National Rifle Association and rich, right wing groups to strongly push their interests and buy politicians in Washington to serve their needs. The only recourse for an individual American is to support as many special interests that address their needs and concerns as possible. Individual votes don’t count any more. We no longer have a democracy, especially with the Senate being so broken.

Is there an alternative?
Many countries, especially in Europe, choose to use government money to run political campaigns. The amounts that can be spent are strictly limited, though campaign advertisements may be run at discounted rates, the opposite of what happens over here. Can you imagine the right wing Fox “News” Channel giving preferential rates to a Democratic Party candidate? Rates are usually clamped in Europe during the run-ups to elections. Private contributions are generally made to parties, rather than individuals. The amount that a corporation or individual can donate, directly or indirectly, is strictly limited. Most European countries also have stronger libel laws and oversight of political advertising than we do here, making it harder to broadcast provably false claims.

In the United Kingdom, which currently has three major political parties: the Conservative Party mainly relies on donations from individuals and companies; the Labour Party receives most of its donations from trade unions; and Liberal Democrats also receive some union donations, but rely primarily on individuals. The Electoral Commission there recently put a lower cap on the amount that an individual can contribute, as they were worried about a bias towards the interests of rich individuals. There is a much lower incentive for corporations to donate funds because politicians are forced by law to declare an interest in an issue if they have any involvement with a corporation or industry. They may even have to abstain from voting if their peers decide that there is a conflict of interest. The fact that the Conservative Party is heavily entangled with corporations is taken as a fact of life, just as the Labour Party used to be the party of the workers. However, unlike the United States, where a health insurer can direct funds to just the key members on a committee, the connection between a corporation and elected individuals is less direct, allowing them to work more freely in the interests of their constituents.

Roll on, 2011
This could be a good year to invest in DVDs and video games, as there will probably be nothing but fact-distorting political ads airing on television as we get closer to the elections.

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