THE BLOG
03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will Exxon and Goldman choose our next president?

The Supreme Court didn't just open the floodgates yesterday, it breached the dam that has held back untold sums of special interest cash for the better part of a century. While the full legal ramifications of yesterday's sweeping ruling in Citizens United aren't yet clear and the political consequences are likely to remain unknown until the election season gets going, what we already know about this "radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy," as the New York Times put it today, is terrifying enough.

The High Court's 5-4 opinion frees corporations to spend unlimited amounts to advocate for the election or defeat of individual candidates (so long as they don't coordinate with the candidate or his associates). The NYT's David Kirkpatrick paints a vivid picture of just how this might play out in real life for Members of Congress:

The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official that if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.

"We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you -- whichever one you want,' " a lobbyist can tell lawmakers, said Lawrence M. Noble, a lawyer at Skadden Arps in Washington and former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.

(The decision also effectively renders state and local laws with similar prohibitions on corporate spending moot. Thankfully, the Court was not presented with a question that would have allowed it to strike down the restrictions on direct contributions to candidates, so those remain in place.)

The jubilant reaction of the right wing should be all you need to know in order to judge just how troubling this decision may come to be for progressives. For example, NPR reported this morning that Chris LaCivita, the right-wing hack who produced the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004, "sounded like a kid who'd opened his Christmas presents and gotten just what he wanted" as he described how the decision would "ease donors' mind." Specifically, extreme right wing donors who he claims were scared away from funding the 2008 version of LaCivita's slime machine, the so-called American Issues Project. You may remember them best for an infamous ad about candidate Obama and Bill Ayers:

Washington is already away awash in a sea of corporate cash and this decision will only foul these already dirty waters. Coincidentally, quarterly lobbying reports were also due yesterday. One need look no further than these tallies of influence peddling for a preview of what we're likely to see in the fall's elections. Take, for example, Big Oil, Dirty Coal, and the other polluters that have stymied passage of comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation and have now even launched an unprecedented assault on the Clean Air Act. Here's how much they and some of their front groups spent just on direct lobbying in 2009 (according to Senate records):

ExxonMobil: $30.1 million
BP: $17.2 million
ConocoPhillips: $18 million
Chevron: $23 million
Koch Industries: $10.3 million
Duke Energy: $9.2 million
Southern Company: $16.5 million
American Petroleum Institute: $10.8 million
National Mining Association: $4.8 million
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity: $2.2 million

That's $142.1 million from just seven companies and three of their trade associations or front groups.

The totals listed above account only account for spending on direct lobbying. These same companies and groups also spent hundreds of millions of dollars more last year alone on ads designed to influence Congress-ads often likely to be very similar to those these companies are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts on and which can now include so-called "express advocacy" for or against a specific candidate. If companies already spend such huge sums on ads that are often vague only for legal reasons or may only indirectly impact Congressional action, why would they not jump at the opportunity to run ads on specific issues for or against specific candidates in order to get what they want from Congress?

These special interests are also no stranger to more overtly political spending. Here's a rundown of how much OpenSecrets reports PACs and individuals associated with key industries, such as Big Oil, gave directly to candidates over the last two election cycles (one mid-term, one including a presidential election):

Big Oil: $20.2 million (2006)/ $35.6 million (2008)
Health Insurance Companies: $8.2 million/$14.4 million
Drug Companies: $11.2 million/$15.6 million
Financial Services/Insurance: $260 million/$476 million

In 2008, ExxonMobil made a record-breaking profit of $45.2 billion--$1400 a second. As was widely noted yesterday, the oil giant could have diverted just over 2 percent of its profits and would have outspent both the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain, which combined spent just over $1 billion. Following yesterday's ruling, Exxon could do just that in the 2012 election. And it would all be perfectly legal.

(For the record, the Sierra Club spent $480,000 on lobbying last year and the Sierra Club Political Committee spent about $1.4 million during the 2008 election cycle.)

As many noted yesterday, perhaps the biggest winner of all was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Despite spending a record-breaking $123 million on lobbying in 2009 (including more than $70 million just last quarter) and being at the forefront of the efforts to attack the Obama administration's health reform, climate change, and financial regulatory reform initiatives, the Chamber complained in its amicus brief in Citizens United that its voice--and those of its corporate members--was being unfairly "suppressed."

The giant business lobbying group, already suffering from high-profile defections for its position on climate change, recently caught some fire for essentially laundering between $10-20 million from health insurance companies. The insurers gave the money one wash cycle by passing it through their industry group, America's Health Insurance Plans, which in turn funneled it to the Chamber. The Chamber then used it to fund attacks ads on health care reform.

The attack ads funded by the Chamber already mentioned specific Members of Congress. It's not a huge leap to imagine the Chamber--or its corporate paymasters--running eerily similar ads that expressly advocate the defeat any Member of Congress who fails to fall in line in with its war on the Obama agenda.

The ruling's defenders on the right rushed to point out that the decision also loosened restrictions on unions and other groups like the Sierra Club. The Court's opinion even mentioned the Sierra Club by name. This unintentionally hilarious paragraph in Politico points out why this argument is quite simply ludicrous:

But the new landscape could also benefit unions and big-spending outside groups that tend to support Democrats, such as the Sierra Club and NARAL Pro-Choice America, though such groups tend to have less access to cash than do corporations.

President Obama and Congressional leaders are already trying to figure out how to mitigate the ruling's impact ahead of the mid-term elections. With so much at stake, let's hope they figure out how before our next president is chosen by ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs.