What to do about the decision by U.S. Supreme Court to — in the words of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold — "(ignore) important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent" in order to make corporations the dominant players in American politics?
Of course, there will be legislative scrambling at the local, state and federal levels. The decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and four other justices to reject history and precedent in order to put a radical pro-corporate spin on the First Amendment throws into question rules designed to regulate even the worst campaign abuses by business interests.
Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who leant his name to the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, will be working overtime to defend not just the progress he has made as a reformer but a century of clean-government legislation.
"It is important to note that the decision does not affect McCain-Feingold’s soft money ban, which will continue to prevent corporate contributions to the political parties from corrupting the political process. But this decision was a terrible mistake," says the Wisconsin senator. "Presented with a relatively narrow legal issue, the Supreme Court chose to roll back laws that have limited the role of corporate money in federal elections since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Ignoring important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent, the Court has given corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns. Just six years ago, the Court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.’ Yet this Court has just upended that prohibition, and a century’s worth of campaign finance law designed to stem corruption in government. The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections. In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible."
When all is said and done, however, that may not be enough.
It may be that the United States Constitution will need to be amended in order to restore to the Teddy Roosevelt principle:
"All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law," said Roosevelt in the first years of the 20th century, when he was also proposing public financing of federal election.
The court’s ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC is a game-changer that, in the words of Feingold says corporations "can just open their treasuries (and) completely buy up all the television time, and drown out everyone else’s voices."
There’s a small measure of nuance in the ruling.
In their 5-4 decision, the majority maintained restrictions on direct donations by corporations to candidates and political parties.
But corporations – with their immense resources and their immense desire to influence the political and governing processes – will be able to spend as freely as their like (on television commercials and other forms of communication) to secure the election results they seek.