IN TWO SHORT years, the US Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations have the same political rights as individuals has produced plenty of mischief — so much so that the justices should have welcomed the chance to step it back. Instead, the same five justices who formed the majority in the 2010 Citizens United campaign-finance case made that ruling more sweeping, by rejecting — without hearing oral arguments — a Montana law that placed certain restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures in that state’s elections.
In his Citizens United ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy confidently asserted that independent corporate expenditures in political campaigns “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” But it didn’t take long for corrupting influences to emerge. Political campaigns quickly created nominally independent “super PACs” that run negative ads using gobs of money from often unaccountable donors. A billionaire casino owner singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s foundering presidential campaign alive by pouring millions into the former House speaker’s super PAC, even as he struggled to raise money by conventional means.
In upholding a law restricting corporate contributions for and against candidates, the Montana Supreme Court cited evidence that, in the past, the mineral-rich but sparsely populated state had been dominated by a small number of resource-extraction firms. And in a brief supported by more than 20 other states, including Massachusetts, New York’s attorney general argued that the danger that corporate contributions will unduly influence a campaign is magnified in state and local elections — especially in jurisdictions where judges, prosecutors, and regulatory officials are elected rather than appointed.
The ruling in the Montana case, as in the 2010 one, presumes that corporations were having difficulty being heard. In fact, a company’s shareholders, executives, and employees have always been able to exert influence over the political process by making donations in their own names; only their ability to use corporate treasuries has been restricted.
The potentially dire consequences of Citizens United, and now the Montana case, go beyond the influx of corporate money in the political process. Executives seeking to maximize shareholder value may feel obliged to spend company money to bend public policy to their will, especially when everyone else does it; money that might have gone to research and development will go instead toward seeking government favors. It’s a windfall for political consultants, of course. But the effects of a less fettered campaign-finance system are evident in ways they weren’t two years ago, and only the high court has failed to notice.