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Will the Supreme Court unleash corporate spending in elections?

Any day now, the Supreme Court will decide the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. In fact, this Monday is the next most likely day for a decision. We are bracing for it, because it could dramatically tip the balance of power in our democracy.

Since the day the case was re-heard on Sept. 9, when Public Citizen members and activists held protests across the country, we’ve been waiting to hear if the decision will have limited, but worrisome consequences, or if the court will unleash unlimited corporate spending in our elections. In previous decisions, the Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld the constitutionality of the ban on direct corporate spending to influence elections. But the Roberts Court may now reverse a century’s worth of precedent on limits to corporate spending.

At the heart of the case is the debate about free speech rights of for-profit corporations.  Though the First Amendment was designed to protect the free speech rights of people, for the past three decades, a divided Supreme Court has transformed the First Amendment into a powerful tool for corporations seeking to influence the political process. This could reach an extreme conclusion in Citizens United v. FEC.

Corporations already have too many ways to corrupt the political process.  But the consequences will be dire if they can spend unlimited amounts to influence our elections. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how much corporate money would flood into elections in an unregulated system, it is reasonable to assume it would be very substantial – and likely would overwhelm any candidate that campaigned on an issue strongly opposed by well-heeled corporate interests (think health care, climate change and new rules for Wall Street). That would not bode well for anyone who is not an executive at a large corporation – or for the future of our country.

Public Citizen is calling for immediate action to remedy the existing excessive influence of corporate spending on our elections and counter the potentially devastating consequences in this case.

Here’s what Congress can do now:

1.) Support and pass the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R.1826, S.752). Public financing is the single most effective legislative remedy to the current corrosive system of campaign finance. The Fair Elections Now Act offers qualified congressional candidates a viable alternative that incentivizes small donations and provides competitive grants.

The Fair Elections Now Act would give congressional candidates an alternative to funding by big donors and corporations. Instead, candidates could accept only donations under $100 in exchange for receiving public money. The bill (S.752, H.R.1826) would rightly re-focus candidates on voters and the critical issues of our day. It is gaining ground in the House with more than 120 co-sponsors and counting. Congress should pass it now to have the alternative in place in time for the 2010 elections.

2.) Support shareholder protection to stop corporate executives from using shareholder money to further their own political agendas. Corporate political expenditures, including expenditures for campaign ads, electioneering communications, issue advocacy and ballot measure campaigns at the state and federal levels should require majority approval of all shareholders.

This much-needed reform would prevent corporations from spending money from their treasury without shareholder approval. Before corporations could spend money to elect or defeat candidates, a majority of shareholders – think everyone with a 401k account – would have to approve. It’s one thing to give company executives discretion to spend corporate money — which ultimately belongs to shareholders — on business decisions. But there is no reason to give them any freedom to spend shareholder money on political objectives, without shareholder approval.

These are reforms we need now, but these also would go a long way to counter a potentially bad decision on Citizens United.

However, if this Supreme Court decides that corporations are in effect “people,” ultimately the only way to permanently address this contortion of the Constitution would be to amend it to restore the rights of real, living, breathing citizens.

In fact, we should end the ceaseless debate about the free speech rights of for-profit corporations now. But, should the Supreme Court decide to rule more affirmatively in favor of corporate personhood, then Public Citizen and our allies will launch a massive campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to make clear that the First Amendment rights are for natural persons and the press – and not for-profit corporations.

In the Huffington Post, Public Citizen president Robert Weissman wrote:

Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people — not the corporations and their money. Corporations don’t vote, and they shouldn’t be permitted to spend limitless amounts of money to influence election outcomes.

If the Supreme Court disagrees, we’ll have our work cut out for us.

Want to learn more? Check out the Q&A with Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson, an attorney representing members of Congress who are committed to reining in corporate influence. Or for some comic relief in the form of hysterical satire, watch Stephen Colbert riff on Citizens United.

What can you do? Take action at www.DontGetRolled.org and watch this blog for updates.