Wednesday, January 4, 2012
By Bob Gaydos
While most of the country was going about the business of welcoming the new year and hoping it would be more rewarding than the departing one, an event was taking place in a sparsely populated state in the middle of the country that could have a profound effect on the future political landscape of America.
What? Oh God, no. Not the Iowa caucuses. What a joke that is. Every four years, about 100,000 mostly older, mostly white, mostly conservative, almost certainly evangelical Christians pay their dues, eat a bunch of free food and vote for a Republican who hasn’t got a chance in hell of ever being elected president of the United States. They call it democracy in action. Except for TV news channels, the rest of the country ignores the process, never mind trying to understand it.
No, the big political news was made farther west and north, in an even less-populated state -- Montana. In a decision it released late Friday, when no one was paying attention, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the state’s century-old law banning direct corporate spending on political candidates or parties was still valid, despite the 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which said corporations have the same rights as individual citizens when it comes to making contributions to candidates.
For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, control of the political process -- candidates, legislation, regulation, entire agendas -- by major corporations is the chief problem with the political system in the United States today. Whoever raises the most cash almost always wins and that cash always comes with strings and muzzles attached. Unlimited corporate contributions also inevitably lead to negative, sometimes downright nasty, political advertising because candidates don’t have to affix their names to the ads. They are paid for by corporations and fueled by anonymous sponsors.
Ask Newt Gingrich, who asked his fellow Republican candidates to play nice in Iowa, what he thinks about the nasty ads attacking him paid for by groups that support Mitt Romney. Newt simply called Mitt a liar directly.
Romney, of course, has famously said that “corporations are people, too.” Funny about that. The Montana court ruled 5-2 against that view and perhaps the most powerful argument against the corporations-are-people argument came from one of the dissenting judges.
Justice James C. Nelson, one of my new heroes, dissented because he does not think the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission allows for states to exempt themselves from it. But he left no doubt where he stood on the matter of equal rights for corporations:
“Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people -- human beings -- to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.
“Worse still, while corporations and human beings have many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.”
Montana’s long opposition to corporate spending in politics stems from a time when copper and coal industries dominated the sparsely populated state, using their vast resources to buy elections. The case involved a corporate alliance that did massive fundraising based on the lure of no one ever knowing who donated to their cause. It’s what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about today -- the vast disparity in control of the political system and government with the richest 1 percent of the population dominating the agenda.
Montana gets it. The hope is that other states will follow suit. The immediate hoped-for effect is that the American Traditions Partnership will appeal the ruling, saying that the federal court’s ruling applies to state laws as well. That would set up a test case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
One senator isn’t waiting for that to happen. With this year’s campaign spending by “non-political” groups sure to approach $1 billion, Vermont’s independent Bernard Sanders (photo) has introduced the Saving American Democracy Act. It would set up a process for a constitutional amendment to repeal the Citizens United ruling. The amendment would make clear that corporations are not people with constitutional rights, that they cannot contribute to election campaigns, that they are subject to regulation and that Congress and the state can regulate election campaign spending. The New York City Council voted Wednesday to support the amendment. The Working Families Party is circulating a petition on the issue. Other groups are planning protests for Jan. 21, the second anniversary of the Citizens United ruling.
Overturning the ruling will not be a quick or easy process, but it has to start somewhere. Big Sky country sound like a perfect place.