When the Supreme Court ventures into the subject of corporate political spending, it has a way of fogging the minds of its critics. Earlier this year, lamenting the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "The rights of Vermonters and all Americans to speak to each other and to be heard should not be undercut by corporate spending."
What's foggy about that? Leahy didn't seem to recall that Vermont didn't ban corporate spending in state campaigns, so it wasn't affected. Also lost on him is that despite the free rein given to big business, Vermont is the most liberal state in America, according to Gallup. Critics of corporate interests have no difficulty communicating there.
Likewise, Chicago Ald. Edward Burke has endorsed a constitutional amendment to reverse the ruling. The idea that a Chicago alderman who has never been identified with clean government would offer advice to the nation on preventing corruption is surprising enough. But factor in that Illinois already allowed corporate campaign spending, and it becomes even harder to fathom why he's just now grasping the grim threat it poses.
The latest decision came on Monday, when a majority of the justices struck down a Montana Supreme Court decision that more or less insisted their writ does not run in the Land of the Shining Mountains. The Montana court had defiantly upheld a 1912 ban on corporate electioneering because, it said, the state was once the victim of giant companies that used bribes and threats to get their way.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict, declining to jettison Citizens United. So the First Amendment protects free speech rights even in Montana and even when they are exercised by individuals joined together in a limited liability organization.
This verdict revived the familiar howls of outrage about vast business entities buying politicians like ripe fruit. "These American oligarchs are trying to control the political system for their own purposes," warned Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The White House claimed that "independent expenditures by corporations are threatening the health of our democracy."
The critics are oblivious to the most striking fact about the aftermath of the original decision freeing corporations to spend money on elections: Corporations by and large have chosen not to. During the Republican presidential primaries, Super PACs laid out huge sums on ads to promote one candidate or savage another. But Republican campaign finance lawyer Jan Baran recently told The New York Times, "Super PACs have not spent a nickel of Fortune 500 money because they haven't gotten any."
Of the $96 million donated to these political operations, 86 percent has come from individuals and less than 1 percent from publicly traded corporations. Major companies almost unanimously have concluded that they have more to lose than gain by wading into polarizing political campaigns.
Corporate abstinence is the opposite of what was forecast after Citizens United. "The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon," reported The New York Times. "A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: If you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election."
I contacted Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, both critics of the decision, to ask for examples of such efforts. I got nothing back.
Some wealthy individuals like Sheldon Adelson—who gave $21 million to a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich and is now supporting Mitt Romney's Restore Our Future—have been willing to lavish money helping candidates they like. But they have been free to do that since 1976, when the court said Congress can't restrict independent expenditures in political campaigns.
If a magnate wants to empty a bank vault to pay for campaign ads, he will succeed only to the extent those spots actually persuade voters. Even with Adelson's extravagant help, Gingrich finished fourth in delegates. Speaking of money, didn't Rick Perry have a lot of it?
The important point, though, is that neither of them got much help from corporations, despite the stakes in this election. The threat being hyped by Obama and others is one that so far exists only in their imaginations.
Today, we can see that Citizens United not only expanded free speech rights to ensure the government cannot punish certain disfavored speakers, but didn't have the disastrous consequences that some predicted. It's all silver lining, but the critics are determined to find a cloud.