January 28, 2010

Last week the Supreme Court – in the disastrous Citizens United decision – effectively opened up American elections to unlimited spending by foreign governments and corporations. President Obama rightly called the court out last night in his SOTU address:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people.

But not everyone was applauding. Justice Alito was busy shaking his head, pantomiming, and mouthing “not true” to no one in particular (watch here).

Not surprisingly, right-wing bloggers have jumped to Alito’s defense and accused the president of lying. They point to existing bans on electioneering by foreigners and foreign companies. But that’s only part of the story.

There aren’t any restrictions on US subsidiaries of foreign corporations or on foreign-controlled US corporations. And thanks to the Supreme Court, these companies can spend billions on electing or picking off American politicians at all levels of government. This isn’t just some little loophole, it’s a gaping breech in our democracy.

As Justice Stevens argued in his eloquent dissent, the court’s ruling “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.” Amazingly, the same conservatives who go apoplectic over the slightest whiff of foreign influence – such as when Obama bows ceremoniously to a foreign leader – have embraced that view.

They don’t seem to mind that Lukoil (Kremlin Inc.), Citgo (Hugo Chavez LLC), Aramco (King Fahd and Sons Co.), and countless other multinational corporations – including those run as business arms of foreign governments – now have a free hand to influence the government from top to bottom.

In fact, the conservative justices raised and then summarily dismissed the issue in their opinion:

We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’spolitical process.

Truly incredible. They happily overturned over a century of precedent, but they worried that it might be presumptuous of them to limit foreign influence in American elections.

Now, there are naysayers out there who argue that foreign corporations won’t try to buy US elections because they’re required to disclose such activities and would risk alienating customers and creating controversy. Sadly, that’s wrong.

Corporations can now transfer money to trade associations (American Petroleum Institute), so-called advocacy groups (FreedomWorks), PR firms (Creative Response Concepts, the creators of swift-boating), or any variety of shell corporation/front group and spend unlimited amounts on attack ads, robocalls, direct mail, canvassing, etc. – all without any disclosure whatsoever.

But Republican leaders in Washington don’t seem to mind. In fact, they’re calling this a leveling of the playing field and a boon to the American middle class. It’s obvious that they expect the bulk of foreign cash will be spent on their behalf.

We can’t stand by as the GOP sells out the US to the highest bidder, foreign or domestic. As the president mentioned, there’s newly introduced legislation in Congress that would ban electioneering by foreign interests. We should pass it quickly, along with public financing of campaigns. But Congress can only chip away at the edges of the ruling. American democracy will be in grave danger until Citizens United is overruled by a constitutional amendment or the court itself.

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