Opinion-Editorial

Elections not for sale

High court decision must be mitigated

By Rep. Mike Capuano

Originally published in Boston Herald
May 17, 2010

In January the Supreme Court vastly altered the electoral landscape of 2010 with its 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. FEC. The ruling eviscerated some important and long-standing campaign finance laws.

The court ruled that Congress cannot prohibit corporations from spending money on elections. Such prohibitions, according to the court, violate the First Amendment-guaranteed free speech rights of corporations. This long-awaited ruling essentially established that for the purposes of free speech, corporations should be treated as individuals. One of the immediate ramifications of this decision is that it will allow corporations to spend freely from their general treasury funds to influence elections.

Of course, we cannot ignore the will of our highest court. But lawmakers can seek to limit its negative impact through legislative action. One way to do that is through a corporate governance approach. Toward that end, I have introduced the Shareholder Protection Act which would require authorization from a majority of shareholders before a corporation could spend from its general treasury on political activities. It also builds in other protections, such as a subsequent vote by the board of directors and disclosure of both votes and political expenditures.

We must be certain, at the very least, that if corporations can spend unlimited funds on elections, their shareholders will have the ability to exercise their free speech rights by voting on the use of those funds. Increased transparency of this spending will also give voters more information about where campaign money is coming from.

The Citizens United decision is troubling. It opens up political campaigns to potentially wide-reaching private and foreign interests because of the now-unlimited ability of corporations to spend money in order to influence the outcome of elections. There is no question that the campaign landscape has shifted and the role of money has just grown significantly.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has also worked with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on legislation that would prevent the influence of foreign corporations, ban government contractors and bailout beneficiaries from campaign spending, and increase disclosure requirements on spending.

We should be building on our past successes in campaign finance reform. Instead, the court has moved us in the opposite direction, increasing the influence of money in politics and diminishing the power of the individual voter.

The court did not leave legislators much room for action, but many of us are dedicated to doing all we can to curb corporate influence in elections. And time is short. The 2010 election cycle is already upon us, and Congress must work to advance legislation that, at a minimum, increases transparency and limits the influence of corporate money.

In Massachusetts, we just chose a new senator in a special January election. With just one race on the ballot, voters experienced an unprecedented level of political advertising from outside groups, and that was on top of the advertising efforts of both campaigns. Imagine how much more of this voters will experience now that the Supreme Court has ruled corporations should be treated as persons with free speech rights.

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Contact: Alison M. Mills (617) 621-6208