The full implications of the Citizens United ruling that corporations and unions are people, and thus have a free-speech right to spend as much of their enormous resources as they wish to influence elections, are only gradually coming into focus.
But here’s a good place to start:
Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group, recently sent a letter around to other major coal companies proposing that they create a new campaign-finance entity that would allow them to spend millions of dollars defeating candidates they don’t like. Even better, thanks to the successful filibuster against the so-called DISCLOSE Act, their expenditures wouldn’t have to be publicly disclosed until they file their tax returns next year, long after the election is over.
The Lexington Herald Leader has obtained a copy of Nicholson’s letter.
“With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard,” Nicholson wrote. “…. A number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats. We’re requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort.”
According to the letter, Nicholson’s company and three other major coal firms “have already had some theoretical discussions about such an effort and would like to proceed in developing an action plan.” Among the firms listed is Massey Energy, run by CEO Don Blankenship, who has a long history of buying politicians and state Supreme Court justices.
As the Herald-Leader also notes, Nicholson’s firm “owned the Sago mine in West Virginia where 12 miners died in 2006. Massey owned the Upper Big Branch mine, also in West Virginia, where 29 miners died in April.”
The letter proposes to focus the finance effort on three races “of interest”. One of them is the contest between incumbent Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia against his Republican challenger, Elliott “Spike” Maynard. For those who followed that story, Maynard is the former West Virginia Supreme Court justice who vacationed on the French Riviera with Blankenship, then came home and cast the deciding vote that overturned a $50 million verdict against Blankenship’s company.
Unfortunately, the power that Citizens United confers on both unions and corporations lies not just in their expanded ability to change the outcome of elections. It also gives those entities considerable if more subtle power to intimidate or seduce those already in office.
It’s a shame that this evolved so quickly into a partisan issue, because Citizens United poses a danger to conservatives as well as liberals. For example, it hands a much bigger stick to unions, including government-employee unions, to reward their friends and punish their enemies. It gives Wall Street an even bigger voice in demanding access to government bailouts and other favors. If you are concerned about immigration, it enhances the clout of Big Agriculture and other industries that see illegal immigrants as a cheap source of labor and profit. And it will make politicians more eager to appease corporations that come to them behind closed doors demanding congressional earmarks.
Overall, Citizens United tightens the nexus between government and business, allowing each to seek more favors from the other. Such rent-seeking behavior will inevitably undercut the operation of the free market, a prospect that no doubt frightens the few remaining true conservatives on the modern American scene.
Personally, I never liked the approach taken by President Obama and the Democrats in trying to address this challenge. The DISCLOSE Act was an effort to manage the issue, rather than solve it, and any effort to “manage” a problem like this becomes a power play in its own right.
A better approach would be a simple, clean, nine-word constitutional amendment that strikes at the heart of the Citizen United ruling: “A corporation or union is not a natural person.” It seems to me to be an irrefutable statement of fact, or at least ought to be.