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Corporate spending: A balanced playing field

Posted: February 6, 2010 4:38 p.m.
Updated: February 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.
The decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case has created a huge stir among Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates across the nation. 

Many of these “doomsday prophets” suggest the Supreme Court has single-handedly destroyed the sanctity of the free election process, defying the purpose and intent of our forefathers when they established a free republic, claiming corporations will now basically be able to unabashedly buy elections, and thus control all of government.

In fact, during a news conference held shortly after the decision was announced, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., went so far as to say, “the Supreme Court just predetermined the winners of next November’s elections.”

Rather than a cataclysmic end to the democratic system as we know it, it certainly would appear the court’s decision balances the political powers, rather than tipping it in favor of “Corporate America.”  

According to a news release by the Campaign Finance Institute, about 55 percent of the $337 million the Obama campaign raised from individuals for the general election came from donors who gave less than $1,000 each.

It has been estimated that more than 60 percent of these “small donors” were members of labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union, Teamsters and AFL/CIO, among others.

Even if Corporate America does contribute to the process, the small individual contributor still has greater collective power than any single corporate entity.

Additionally, it is the individual who votes on election day — not the corporate entity. While dollars may be contributed and messages conveyed, only the individual has the power to make the decision on who leads this country.

Also overlooked in all of the media-induced hysteria is the fact that the decision did not repeal or limit the prohibition against corporations and labor unions making direct contributions to a federal candidate’s campaign. Further, even if a corporation chooses to make an expenditure to support or oppose a particular candidate, the disclosure and disclaimer requirements prescribed by federal campaign finance laws will still apply.

In other words, voters will know where the message comes from, and can draw their own conclusions on the merit of the advertisement. It is this same disclosure requirement that will likely deter most corporations from financing campaign attack ads, given the potential blow-back from consumers who associate a corporate brand with an opposing partisan position.  

More importantly, and the issue most overlooked by critics of this decision, is that the majority opinion was a well-reasoned application of First Amendment law and precedent.

Free speech is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Under the McCain-Feingold Act, corporations had been denied First Amendment political speech protections otherwise afforded to Americans.

Opponents of the ruling argue that corporations should not be afforded free speech rights. However, corporations pay taxes and are required to abide by the laws created by our legislators, so why shouldn’t they be provided a seat at the table in deciding who is making those laws?

It would be un-American to deny corporations the right to voice their opinions — whether in favor or dissent — to the elected officials who make the laws, spend the tax dollars and impact the way business in America is done.

The decision recognized these unconstitutional limitations, and merely removed an improper impediment to corporate free speech rights.

While there are differing views on the merit of the decision, the whole issue will likely be moot in short order, given the Obama administration’s pledge to restrict the anticipated increase in political influence that Corporate America “gained” in the Citizens United decision.

In the interim, though, it certainly appears that the playing field has been balanced.

Brian Koegle is a partner with the law firm of Poole & Shaffery, LLP. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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