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Election ruling slaps We the People

Two Views • Supreme Court campaign finance ruling forever changes elections, some say not for the better
by: MARK WILSON, 
Members of the US Supreme Court pose for a group photograph at the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. Two My View writers debate the impact last week’s decision for the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case will have on future campaign spending.

If you thought that big corporations have too much say in Congress now, just wait a year. From stalling health care reform to weakening banking reform, big business has been calling the shots in Washington, D.C., for some time now. And that's without them being able to spend unlimited cash on campaigns.

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case changes all that. There were two key aspects of the ruling that are both shocking. First, the court said that corporations have the same First Amendment rights to freedom of speech that flesh-and-blood people have, thus they should be able to spend as much money as they want on campaigns. Second, they said that such spending has no possibility of corrupting politicians or even the appearance of corruption.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Five Supreme Court Justices believe that if Exxon spends $20 million to support a candidate, that politician won't be influenced by Exxon in any way, and the public won't think it will.

That is pretty hard to swallow.

It is also difficult to agree with the idea that corporations, which are creations of the state, and are created to facilitate economic activity, should be given the same rights as citizens. Last I checked, the U.S. Constitution started with the phrase 'We the People.'

How will this decision impact Oregon? On one level, not at all. For state elections, Oregon has no limitations on campaign contributions from corporations or anyone else. This alone is cause for alarm and needs to be changed.

But most big corporations are more concerned with federal regulation and the outcomes of congressional and presidential elections. Oregon has a history of being a swing state in presidential races, and has often had close House and Senate races.

Think about the most recent Senate race between Democrat Jeff Merkley and incumbent Republican Sen. Gordon Smith - then imagine 10 times as many campaign ads on television and radio, more phone calls, more mailings, etc. That's going to be one impact of this decision on the 2010 elections and beyond.

The Supreme Court wiped away decades of limits on corporate and union spending on elections that were intended to keep power as close as possible to the hands of voters. Unions are also now welcome to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns, but even under current controls, corporations outspend labor by a margin of 4 to 1, and that margin will only widen under this ruling.

Exxon could have spent only 1 percent of its 2008 profits to exceed all campaign spending that happened in 2008.

Power needs to be restored to the people, and there are three avenues to do this that deserve consideration. Congress should pass a new law requiring corporations to get a vote of their shareholders before they spend money on campaigns - similar to rules on how labor unions need a vote of their members on political endorsements.

We also need a constitutional amendment that clarifies that First Amendment rights apply only to U.S. citizens, not artificial entities like corporations.

Furthermore, Congress should pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a system of public financing for congressional races similar to Portland's Voter Owned Elections system. This kind of system cuts direct ties between elected officials and special interests. It also provides a way for candidates who are victims of attack ads to have resources to respond without having to resort to more special interest fundraising.

This kind of system works in Portland and several states, and Congress should move to make it a reality nationwide.

Make no mistake, this Supreme Court decision will dramatically change our democracy for the worse. We the People still have the ability to take back control of the political process - but the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

Jon Bartholomew is a Policy Advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group and lives in Northeast Portland.