The stink of corporate money and the spoiling of our political infrastructure

English: Official photo of Governor Brian Schw...
Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“[W]e will see whether the [Supreme C]ourt decides to blow the stink of Washington into Montana, or whether we can preserve our fresh mountain air.”
– Montana governor, Brian Schweitzer (D), in an op-ed published Sunday, in the New York Times, discussing his state’s open challenge to the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision

We do not all live in Montana, but we are all susceptible to the foul smell of corruption from the burst dam of corporate dollars flooding our elections this year. In Big Sky Country, they have had a law on the books against big money in elections since 1912, when, Gov. Schweitzer says in his op-ed:

“…the people of Montana approved a ballot initiative banning corporate money from campaigns (with limited exceptions). We later banned large individual donations, too. Candidates in Montana may not take more than a few hundred dollars from an individual donor per election; a state legislator can’t take more than $160. And everything must be disclosed.

“These laws have nurtured a rare, pure form of democracy. There’s very little money in Montana politics. Legislators are basically volunteers: they are ranchers, teachers, carpenters and all else, who put their professions on hold to serve a 90-day session, every odd year, for $80 a day.

“And since money can’t be used to gain access, public contact with politicians is expected and rarely denied. “

It sounds so idyllic, being able to just knock on the door and say, “Howdy,” to your elected representative, one who hasn’t been compromised by the corrupted stench of special interest money. But the Supreme Court, last February, stayed that 100 year old law because it violated the ruling in Citizens United. “This means,” the Montana Commissioner for Political Practices explains on the state’s website, “that, until further notice, corporations may make independent expenditures to support or oppose a candidate or political party.”

Direct corporate contributions to candidate or party are still prohibited, under the Montana law.

The stay was in reaction to a 5-2 Montana Supreme Court ruling, on December 30, that found the state’s law to be an exception to Citizens United v. F.E.C., because of the Treasure State’s sordid history of copper barons buying influence at the turn of the last century. Schweitzer relates the story of one senator from the state, who the U.S. Senate expelled once it was found that, at a time when statehouses chose U.S. senators, he “gave each corruptible state legislator $10,000 in cash, the equivalent of $250,000 today.”

UPI, which describes the actions of the state court as “Montana’s cheeky slap at Citizens United,” explains what might happen when the Supremes meet in D.C., on June 14, to figure out what to do about the case:

“They could let the state court ruling stand — highly unlikely. They could put the decision off to a later conference. Or they could ‘summarily reverse’ the state court ruling, undoing the Montana Supreme Court decision without hearing argument.”

Of the three possibilities, the second is certainly the one that gives those who oppose the infamous 2010 decision the most hope, especially if it means a refinement of the original ruling. According to SCOTUS’ order staying the Montana decision, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, who dissented in 2010, supported the stay as “an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.”

Certainly, there is a growing movement among states and municipalities across the country to create a constitutional amendment that would make regulating all corporate campaign contributions legal. Gov. Schweitzer argues for it in his column. The Boston Herald reported last month that “56 cities and towns across Massachusetts that are calling on Congress to pass an amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.” And New Jersey’s Upper Township Gazette reported, Monday, that the American Dream Movement is supporting efforts in the NJ Senate to pass a resolution “which ‘expresses strong opposition to’ the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. FEC decision by calling upon Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment that would define a person as ‘only a natural person’ with regard to campaign spending by corporations and their protection under the First Amendment.”

Prose and Thorn recently reported on other efforts, in California and Illinois, to push for similar legislation.

All the legal back-and-forth aside, this is a fight for who controls the agendas of lawmakers – big corporate money, or the voices of the people.  As Schweitzer warns, if there is no revision of Citizens United, and there is no political will to put forward an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “the Washington model of corruption — where corporations legally bribe members of Congress by bankrolling their campaigns with so-called independent expenditures, and get whatever they need in return — will have infected” not only our nation’s capital, not only Montana, but also the chambers of every capitol building in every state, and every city hall in every town in America.


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