NWF View: We the People Corporations of the United States …

03-12-2010 // Larry J. Schweiger, President & Chief Executive Officer

Larry Schweiger

THERE IS AN OLD EXPRESSION: “Money speaks and politicians listen.” With public confidence in Congress at a low point, the last thing America now needs is to have big energy companies trying to buy elections and wielding even greater influence in the halls of Capitol Hill and in state legislatures.

Yet in one reckless sweep in January, the U.S. Supreme Court ignored the potentially corrupting influence of money and redefined “people” in the Constitution to include corporations. Equating money to free speech, the court extended First Amendment protections to corporations.

Some energy companies have been working for decades to oppose commonsense protections for wildlife and undermine some of our nation’s most important conservation laws. Now they want to block emerging clean energy technologies and keep America addicted to dirty and dangerous energy. Oil companies have been enjoying record profits at our expense, and they have plenty of money to spend on electing their friends to Congress and state legislatures throughout the country.

This incredible judicial activism threatens the integrity of our democracy. Justifying “legislation from the bench,” the Supreme Court’s majority opinion breaks completely free of logic and places enormous and undeserved confidence on the Internet to prevent abuse by saying: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

Right. How many voters on the eve of an election will be digging through the next attack advertiser’s records on the Internet to discover that the ads are actually produced by a group that fronts for a Big Oil baron? Not going to happen.

Make no mistake about it. This decision will make protecting the environment much more difficult than it already is as elected officials will increasingly fear the excessive power that large polluting corporations wield though misleading advertising.

In the dissenting opinion, the four justices who opposed the decision pointed out the important “distinction between corporate and human speakers.” They added, “Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it.”

Did our founding fathers really intend big banks and other corporations to have the same constitutional status as the people? We get insight into the answer from Thomas Jefferson. During the famous 1809 bank bill debate he warned, “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies ….” Later, in a 1816 letter to Dr. George Logan of Philadelphia, Jefferson expanded his concern by writing, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Will our government become a limited access toll road? In a court brief filed on this matter, the U.S. Solicitor General warned that the corrupting influence of unrestrained corporate spending may lead to a “pay-to-play” government, giving advantage to large corporations able “to afford the ante.”

The court’s minority opinion also noted that corporations “cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”

At this stage, there appears to be little that can be done to change this Supreme Court ruling short of amending the Constitution. It is up to American voters now to be more vigilant than ever to reject corporate influence peddling in its many forms.

National Wildlife Federation is a not-for-profit charity, and as such, our free speech is constrained by law. We cannot participate in elections. We have, however, a sister organization, the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, that is allowed to support lawmakers who stand up for wildlife. They will desperately need our help to fight against the flood of influence peddling. Visit the NWF Action Fund's Action Center.

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