The Supreme Court ruled this morning against restrictions on corporations’ spending to influence election outcomes. On January 12, John Nichols filed the post below in anticipation of the ruling, offering history of campaign finance law and Sen. Russ Feingold’s analysis of the likely impact of the ruling.
More than one hundred years ago, after a 1904 president race that saw big life insurance companies pour money into the project of electing Republican Teddy Roosevelt, the defeated Democratic candidate, Judge Alton Parker, raised the question of whether presidents and congresses would simply be bought by corporations seeking policies that favored their interests.
“The greatest moral question which now confronts us is: Shall the trusts and corporations be prevented from contributing money to control or aid in controlling elections?” declared Parker.
Roosevelt recognized that when he relied on corporate money to overwhelm an opponent, he stood on the wrong side of democracy and put the American experiment at risk. That recognition made the 26th president a reformer. He called for full public financing of federal campaigns and told the Congress in 1905 that: “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”
Roosevelt did not get full public financing, and real reformers are still struggling to achieve this most necessary of all electoral reforms.
But Congress did in 1907 pass the Tillman Act, which banned corporate giving.
Successive congresses have over the years strengthened that ban — with the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, broad amendments to FECA in 1972 and 1974 and the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002.
State governments have gone even further in barring efforts by corporations to influence elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted and rejected aspects of campaign finance laws over the years. But it has consistently respected the right of federal and state governments to constrain corporate electioneering — recognizing as both Democrat Parker and Republican Roosevelt came to that it was in the public interest to prevent trusts and corporations from controlling elections.
But the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, is a conservative judicial activist who has made little effort to disguise his determination to rearrange political rules to favor his political and ideological allies. And Roberts has worked hard to build a court majority in favor of dramatically reducing, and perhaps eliminating, constraints on corporate dominance of the electoral and governing processes.