In Citizens United vs. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court got it dead wrong -- and now, as we enter an election season already riddled with distrust of politicians and more ethics scandals than we've seen since Jack Abramoff, regular Americans are paying a price in the currency of decreased transparency and potentially a flash flood of corporate and special interest money used to influence the outcome of their elections.
The Court ruled, in a disastrous overreach, that corporations and unions are to be treated as persons with equivalent free speech rights, and allowed these special interests to spend unlimited money supporting or attacking candidates in elections. It's safe to say that unlimited corporate and union spending in elections is far from what the founding fathers envisioned when they guaranteed Americans the right of "freedom of speech."
Some corporations have already started taking advantage of the new powers afforded by the Supreme Court. Target, for instance, recently donated $150,000 to a group that is running ads in support of a Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota. In addition to obvious corporate spending, we also know that the money shell game is moving ever faster. Companies now have the power to launder funds through innocuous-sounding political groups, say Americans for a Cleaner Gulf, in order to pay for an onslaught of attack ads right before the election, with no one watching at home knowing that the ads are really being paid for by Exxon and BP.
It is now time for Congress to turn this wrong decision by the Court around.
A few weeks ago, the People's House passed the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175); a measure with the simple and laudable goal of increasing transparency around how much money corporations, unions and special interest groups are spending on elections and where the money comes from. It is now up to the U.S. Senate to pass the DISCLOSE Act when they return from recess.
In addition to being overly opaque, the spending itself is limitless and without check. After this decision, CEOs and their directors can simply dip into their corporate treasuries and spend that money on elections without seeking approval or even informing the people who own their company -- the shareholders. In response to this issue, Representative Mike Capuano (D-MA) introduced the Shareholder Protection Act (H.R. 4790).
The legislation would require prior shareholder approval of political spending for publicly held corporations. Investors should be protected from having their money used to support candidates at odds with their values. Investing has expanded over the past few decades, and today nearly one in every two American households owns stocks. Even our 401k retirement funds are invested in corporate stocks and could be spent by an over-zealous CEO for political advertising.
When we talk about giving shareholders a say in how their money is spent, we are literally talking about the public, not an elite class of investors.
Both of these solutions are critical responses to the Court's decision. We need to give the people who own the company a voice in how their money is spent, and we need to ensure that when the spending happens -- the public is able to determine who is funding what, so they can make educated decisions when they vote.
We urge Congress to support both the Shareholder Protection Act and the DISCLOSE Act and remove the blinders so that those who spend are accountable to the voters they are trying to influence.
Follow Lisa Gilbert on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lisa_PubCitizen