Democracy is for People: Fighting Corporate Influence in Our Elections

State Senator Jamie Eldridge

Over the past few years, frustration with the increasing power that corporations have on our political system has been growing across the country. Whether it has been the debate over healthcare reform, financial reform and consumer protection, or clean air and water regulations, we’ve seen time and time again the very real impact corporate lobbyists and political spending have on our policy making process, with corporate profits trumping the needs of average people over and over.

This problem was made worse two years ago, in January 2010, with the misguided and destructive Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. The decision struck down bipartisan legislation that had limited corporations from spending their general treasury funds on political advertisements.

Now, for-profit corporations may spend unlimited amounts of their general treasury funds to influence elections at all levels of government and set the political agenda through anonymous, multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. The danger is real: if Exxon Mobil had spent just two percent of its 2008 profits in the last presidential election, it would have outspent McCain and Obama combined.

In fact, we are already seeing the effects of the Citizens United decision on our elections. Just this month, Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson spent $10 million to support Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid. Super PACs — the political fundraising groups created in the wake of Citizens United — have already spent $28.5 million on advertising in the Republican presidential campaign, and we are nearly a year away from the election.

The danger of undue corporate influence isn’t only for national elections. Indeed, the biggest danger to our democracy might be at the local level. A large developer seeking a change in a local zoning law, for example, could spend tens of thousands of dollars to influence a board of selectman race — small peanuts to the company, perhaps, but a substantial amount of money for that small local race. A selectman who opposed the company could never compete financially with the flood of advertising. Corporate lobbyists and other powerful special interests are now able to threaten public officials at all levels with the possibility of unending negative campaign ads if their agendas are not supported — and the voices of ordinary citizens are at risk of being drowned out of the electoral process.

I am troubled by the growing role of money — and especially corporate money — in politics for one simple reason: I believe that democracy should not be for sale. As the only Clean Elections candidate elected to public office in Massachusetts history in November 2002, I understand the critical need to reduce the influence of special interest money on elections. In my time as a legislator, I have continued to fight the influence of money in our political system because it breeds corruption and drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens. Working with a coalition of good government and voting rights organizations, I’ve filed several pieces of legislation to address the problems created by the Citizens United decision.

In the short-term, I have proposed S304: An Act Relative to Disclosure of Political Spending, which would require corporations spending money in Massachusetts to disclose their political spending and identify themselves in advertisements that they fund.

Additionally, I have filed S305: An Act Relative to Accountability for Corporate Political Spending, which would require corporations chartered in Massachusetts to receive prior approval from the board of directors before committing funds for political purposes, and to notify shareholders of those expenditures.

These bills would address some of the negative impacts of the Supreme Court decision here in Massachusetts. But ultimately, the only effective long-term solution is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the decision reached in Citizens United and restoring our ability to regulate corporate political spending. To this end, I’ve filed S722: A Resolution Restoring Free Speech, which, if passed, would call upon Congress to send such a constitutional amendment to the states.

Amending the constitution would make it clear that corporations are not people and are not guaranteed the same constitutional rights as we are. As citizens, we think in terms of what is best for our country, our communities, and our children. Corporations, on the other hand, are abstract legal entities created for people to conduct business with each other. They exist for the sole purpose of making profit — not for creating a better society for all Americans.

By enacting these reforms we can ensure that elections are truly decided by “we the people,” and not corporate special interests.

JAMIE ELDRIDGE is a Democratic state senator from Acton.

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