Right now, the United States is fighting two wars, soaring budget deficits, double digit unemployment, and climate change. So why is the White House, aided by Senator Chuck Schumer as well as Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Mike Castle, worrying about trying to respond to a Supreme Court decision that will have little practical impact on American elections at the national level? President Obama’s dogmatic insistence on rolling back the Court’s decision in Citizens United. v. FEC is populist politics at its worst. America has far too many problems for the President and Congress to be attacking problems of their own conjuring.
This week, Schumer and company plan to unveil a bill, the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE). The act begins as follows:
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision on January 21 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), overturned decades of campaign finance law and policy, and will now allow special interest money to overwhelm our system and corrode our democracy. We cannot sit by and watch this money flood our system.
Here is the reality: the White House and its Congressional allies drastically overestimate the amount of money that so called major corporations will be willing to spend on elections. Does anyone really think that the CEO of a Fortune 500 is going to be stupid enough to fund campaign advertisements? Think about it logically. It’s hard to imagine a more “Red” corporation than Wal-Mart. But consider the following facts: Each week, about 100 million Americans head to Wal-Mart to shop. A poll in 2004 found that 76% of voters that shop at Wal-Mart once a week voted for Bush. That’s an astonishing margin. But that still means that 24% of Wal-Mart shoppers voted for someone else (23% said they voted for Kerry). If you do the math, if 100 million customers make it to Wal-Mart next week, 23 million might be liberals. If Wal-Mart runs an advertisement supporting a candidate or makes campaign contributions to a candidate, it runs the risk that the New York Times finds out about it, puts a story on the front page, and as a result, 23 million of their customers may take their business elsewhere. Not only that, if they contribute, and then lose, they have pissed off the other party unnecessarily. Tell me, what good does that do?
A major corporation with major spending power would stand to gain very little from attempting to tip the balance of a few House or Senate races. One angry Senator or Congressman might do far more damage than one Congressional or Senatorial friendly ever could. If Harry Reid likes Wal-Mart, he might quietly lobby for a bill that it favors among his colleagues. If Harry Reid decides he hates Wal-Mart, Senator Reid can enlist several of his allies to launch nationally televised Senate hearings into Wal-Mart’s labor and hiring practices. He can author and propose legislation that aims to harm Wal-Mart specifically. This legislation may not pass, but the mere fact that he proposes it would generate bad publicity for Wal-Mart.
The same applies to banks. The banks stand to gain little from putting institutional weight behind a particular candidate. Aside from the fact that no candidate in his or her right mind would be excited to hear that Goldman Sachs is running television ads supporting their candidacy, it simply isn’t in the institutional interests of an organization like Goldman to enter the political fray. If Goldman Sachs annoys the Obama Administration by supporting Mike Huckabee for President, and Mike Huckabee loses, Goldman is probably in trouble. If Mike Huckabee wins, then maybe he leaves them alone… until the Democrats come back to power on an anti-bank, populist message and proceed to regulate the hell out of investment banks.
Contrary to the Administration’s claims, the Citizens United v. FEC decision isn’t going to lead to some flood of corporate money. America is a politically polarized country, and advocating for a candidate from one party risks alienating not only the candidate they oppose but literally fifty percent of Americans. Major corporations would have to be unfathomably stupid to risk associating their brand with a political party.
So while a very few corporations may spend a relatively small amount of political money this coming election season, the idea that the Court’s decision in Citizens United (regardless of your opinion on its legal reasoning) is going to give way to a tsunami of corporate influence over the electoral process is dubious. That the Democrats are making this a priority at a time when there are so many important issues competing for the government’s attention is not only idiotic, but also cynical and insulting.