During this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. had a memorably public disagreement over the case of Citizens United v. FEC. “With all due deference to separation of powers,” the president said, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests…to spend without limit in our elections.” “Not true,” mouthed Alito from his front-row seat, shaking his head vigorously to ward off the thunderous applause following Obama’s remarks. Ignoring Alito’s unorthodox reaction (traditionally, the justices sit stone-faced throughout the address), Obama urged Congress to save America’s democracy from commercialization.
On April 29, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) heeded the president’s cry by introducing legislation designed to curb corporate influence in federal elections. There are many things to like about the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE Act). Most importantly, the act would enhance current disclosure and disclaimer requirements, forcing corporations to electioneer in the plain view of voters. Also key is a provision requiring corporations to disclose all political spending to their shareholders, thereby ensuring that a business’s equitable owners know how their money is being spent.
The DISCLOSE Act is a necessary first response to the problems wrought by unbridled money in politics, and its sponsors should be applauded. By itself, however, it cannot remedy our democracy’s deeper malfunctions.
Here’s why: The skyrocketing costs of political campaigns drive candidates to seek the support — either direct or indirect — of big-money backers. Once these candidates are elected, they feel grateful, perhaps even indebted, to those who donated substantial dollars. And big bucks connected to corporate interests have flowed freely for years, even before Citizens United, via corporate political committees, employee contributions and lobbyists.
Consider Citigroup Inc. As shown by OpenSecrets.org, the investment bank contributes millions of dollars to federal candidates of both parties each election cycle. In 2008 alone, it gave almost $4.9 million. On top of that, the bank then spent more than $5.5 million lobbying Congress in 2009. Is it any wonder that Citi is routinely hailed as one of the most influential players inside the Washington beltway?