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Could corporate money dominate political campaigns once again?

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For decades, the answer to that question has been a firm “no.” As far back as 1907, Congress has passed legislation banning corporations and national banks from contributing money to federal campaigns. In fact, in 1947 legislation was passed that also banned independent campaign expenditures by both corporations and unions. Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce upheld that ban in 1990, and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 went even further in its regulation of campaign donations.

But just a week ago, the Supreme Court made a decision that might change the answer to our question forever. The high court postponed a narrow ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and instead ordered a second argument, setting the stage to broadly re-examine whether corporate campaign expenditures may be restricted at all.

In the case, the conservative group Citizens United asked the court to reject restrictions in the BCRA that would have forced a disclosure of who paid for “Hillary: The Movie,” a film critical of the then-presidential candidate. But the court appears poised to go much further.

Instead of making a decision on the case at hand, the court ordered a second argument for September 9. In doing so, the Court now has asked whether it should overrule two of its landmark campaign finance rulings, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, both of which held that corporations can be prohibited from spending their own cash in direct support of or opposition to political candidates.

It seems as though the entire decades-long effort to keep corporate (and union) money from dominating our political campaigns is to be unceremoniously scrapped. A decision to overrule Austin and McConnell would transform our elections into free-for-alls with massive corporate and union spending flooding the airwaves and officeholders beholden to the deep pockets that promoted their candidacies.

And we’re not the only ones who think so. Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School, was quoted by the National Journal, saying that if the court reverses itself,

it’s going to undo much of what Congress has done over the last at least 40 years in trying to make sure that the vast economic inequalities in this country are not translated into political inequality.

Even now, American corporations are attempting to influence health care legislation and financial reform. Allowing them outright power over our democratic elections would be devastating. Do you want your next senator to be chosen by big businesses or the people? Stay tuned for more action, as this battle has only begun.

Flickr photo by kool_skatkat.