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Court decision opens floodgates for corporate money in campaigns

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Sen. Russ Feingold
January 31, 2010

In its ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court has undone protections against corporate power that stood for more than a century. This decision is a terrible mistake, which gives corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns.


To see corporations gaining this much power may feel like a new era in American politics, but in fact it’s an old one. The Supreme Court has taken us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt battled the trusts, including the railroads, steel companies and oil companies.


Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette refused to be intimidated by the trusts. In 1906, he urged the Senate to pass legislation reining in the power of the railroad monopolies, saying “At no time in the history of any nation has it been so difficult to withstand these forces as it is right here in America today. Their power is acknowledged in every community and manifest in every lawmaking body.”


A year after La Follette spoke those words, Congress passed the Tillman Act to keep corporate money from overwhelming our democratic system. Over the next 100 years, further reforms were enacted to curb corporate influence over elections and respond to scandals such as Watergate or the auctioning of the Lincoln Bedroom to the highest bidder—and the Supreme Court consistently upheld them.


The Supreme Court’s decision returns us to a legal framework that fostered a golden era of corporate influence. While the core of the McCain-Feingold law—the ban on unlimited “soft-money” contributions by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals directly to political parties—remains intact for now, the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision undermines the very foundation of a host of laws enacted to strengthen our democracy and curb corruption in government.


The court’s decision gives a green light to corporations to unleash their massive coffers on the political system. Oil companies, with virtually no harm to their balance sheets, can now try to “take out” members of Congress who don’t toe their company line on energy policy. Foreign-owned companies—even those owned and controlled by foreign governments—are free to underwrite the candidates of their choice.


This new reality strengthens the grip that corporations already have on our democratic institutions. Time and again, the American people have seen their concerns ignored in favor of wealthy interests: in the approval of trade agreements that sent their businesses and jobs overseas, and the undoing of common-sense safeguards on financial companies that contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, among many other decisions.


I will be working with my colleagues to try to restore the voice of the average citizen in elections. We must not stand by as corporations threaten to dominate our democratic process. In our democracy, it’s the power of the voters—not the power of corporate wealth—that should decide our elections.


Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., can be reached at 506 Hart Building, Washington, D.C. 20510-4904; phone (202) 224-5323; e-mail russell_feingold@feingold.senate.gov.

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