As a rule, I don’t believe in conspiracies nor am I particularly paranoid, but sometimes I really do think someone is out to get me. Well, not just me but all who believe in free speech, an open political system and a judiciary that is relatively free of partisan bias.
I was mostly disabused of the latter in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore gave the presidential election to the younger George Bush on a partisan 5-4 vote that was contrary to all precedent and legal principles consistently espoused by the conservative majority. Justice Clarence Thomas, who says nothing but, in my opinion, usually votes on the wrong side of most major decisions, gave Bush the vote he was so desperately seeking but couldn’t get from the electorate.
Sealing the deal on the partisan judiciary was the Citizens United case decided by the Supreme Court last year. In that decision the 5-4 conservative majority said that it was OK for corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to so-called “independent committees” who then use those dollars to support or oppose candidates for political office. In 1907 Congress passed a law banning corporate donations. But over the years, culminating in a 1976 decision—Buckley v. Valeo—where the court held that money is the same as speech, restrictions on corporate campaign donations and spending have faded away.
Earlier this year the court heard a case from Arizona that allows candidates who are up against rich self-funders to get some state dollars to help “level the playing field.” Nebraska has a law with some of the same provisions that the right wing wants to do away with. According to Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer, author and media commentator, writing in The New Yorker on April 11, “ [t]he logic of the [Citizens United] decision—and the views expressed by the majority at the argument [in the Arizona case] last week—suggests that in the future the Court will allow corporations to skip the third parties [independent committees] and give money directly to candidates.” Most of those donations would undoubtedly go to Republicans.
Well, the court has confirmed my paranoia. In June, the right wing 5-4 majority struck down the Arizona law, saying that the state’s campaign financing system restricted the free speech rights of candidates who have the most money. The more money you have, the freer your speech is, I guess.
In the Citizens United case, the court did say that a law might be constitutional to require that those donations be made public. There is legislation pending in Congress to make that happen, but Republicans have blocked any consideration. Thomas, who gave the commencement speech for University of
Nebraska-Lincoln Law College graduates in May, believes, according to Toobin, that even requiring disclosure of donors violates the First Amendment to the Constitution—money is speech carried to the extreme.
Now, the dots start to connect: under the law, labor unions are corporations as well as businesses and would also benefit from the Supreme Court’s loosening of campaign finance laws. Unions currently give millions of dollars to independent committees and to political candidates every election through their political action committees. Mostly to Democrats. But there is a major difference between unions and businesses in how that political money is collected: large corporations can use their profits to finance their political giving. Unions have to collect that money from their members.
The next dot: the 2010 elections resulted in a host of new Republican governors in key electoral states , some with substantial union membership like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Mexico, Florida and Pennsylvania, and re-election of anti-union Republican governors in states like Texas, Indiana and Arizona. Twenty-eight legislative bodies in various states switched from Democratic majorities to Republican.
Another dot: almost immediately, the Republican assault on union rights began—including the attack on the Commission of Industrial Relations in Nebraska, the body that ensures public unions get a fair shake at the bargaining table. There are only 15 Democrats in the 49-member supposedly nonpartisan Unicameral Legislature, and the governor is a Republican. In many states, legislation was introduced to curtail or eliminate collective bargaining for public employees, eliminate jobs, reduce pension and health care benefits and make it very, very hard for unions to collect political contributions from their members. Typically, union membership dues and political contributions are automatically deducted from a worker’s paycheck. By eliminating the ability of unions to collect funds in this manner and forcing them to reach out time after time to every individual worker, the political power of the unions is reduced. That power, as Republicans have noted, has mostly gone to support Democrats.
So, what we have are Republican appointees on the Supreme Court making it easier for corporations to support Republican candidates for office, who in turn pass anti-union laws and make it harder for unions to collect funds to support candidates who would protect workers’ rights—all to protect the right of “free speech” in the First Amendment.
But wait. Many corporations are owned by shareholders. The Securities and Exchange Commission, a federal regulatory body, in March said that shareholders have the right to make decisions on corporate political spending. Theoretically then, enough shareholders could get together to set policies on corporate campaign contributions. Many of those shareholders are American workingwomen and -men who might not agree with decisions made by corporate executives, whose donations usually go to Republican candidates.
Long shot. But who knows? Workers Unite!!!
This is America. Money is speech. Elections are important. Connect the dots.