Columns » Ernest Dumas

Corporations rule

U. S. corporations spent $20+ million to shape what Arkansans thought about three issues: health-insurance reform, union organizing and climate and energy legislation.


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If someone could account for all of it, U. S. corporations in 2009 spent $20 million and maybe much more to shape what Arkansas people thought about three issues in Washington: health-insurance reform, union organizing and climate and energy legislation.

The natural bent of ordinary people might have been to favor all three. The health bills produced by both houses of Congresses, after all, were bonanzas for Arkansans, who would have got more for less under the bills than people in any other state. Unions are almost invisible in Arkansas, but most people toil at poor wages and harbor no spite for organized workers. They might have favored transferring the option of holding collective-bargaining elections from plant owners to employees. Most Arkansans are conscious of environmental spoil and hold no brief for the big oil, gas and coal companies.
Opinion surveys have shown all those inclinations.

But in a few short months the deluge of corporate money manifested in every form of media advertising, direct mail, telephone push polls, robo calls, seminars and surrogate lobbyists turned those opinions upside down. They drowned the feeble and sometimes crude efforts by the other sides and convinced people that all three reforms were sinister schemes to undermine their freedom and well being.

The tide of money worked in the way that it was intended. It turned voter wrath against members of Congress, drove down their poll ratings and changed their votes. The state's little congressional delegation happened to be at the fulcrum of the struggle on all three issues so Arkansas in 2009 provided as stunning a case study of corporate propaganda in the digital age as you could possibly find. Goebbels would have eaten his heart out.

That was before corporations won the right of free speech.

The five former corporate lawyers on the U. S. Supreme Court ruled last week that what the country sorely missed was a real corporate voice in the political market. Overturning 100 years of precedents and laws passed by Congress and states to control the flow of corporate money into political and lawmaking processes, the court said the country could not regulate how much and for what a corporation could spend to see that it got its way with the laws and rules promulgated by governments.

In the corporate justices' formulation, when James Madison introduced the first amendment to the Constitution to assure people the right to speak their ideas, assemble and worship freely he meant for corporations to enjoy the same right to follow their consciences, as if a corporation ever felt a twinge or emitted a brainwave.

That right will now include using corporate treasuries freely to get their messages across as long as they do not deposit the money directly with a candidate. Companies have had no trouble putting their money where there mouths were, as the recent experience in Arkansas shows, but they have had to use circuitous ways. Health insurance companies through their lobbying association, America's Health Insurance Plans, funneled up to $20 million, according to the National Journal, to chambers of commerce for ads against the Senate health reform bill in the late stages last year, mostly in five states. More than $1 million in ads targeted Arkansas voters and Sen. Blanche Lincoln in November and December alone.

Even without unfettered free speech, corporations just have not had any trouble influencing congressional decision making. FollowTheMoney analyzed 75 financial institutions that received billions of dollars of federal bailout money in 2008. They had pumped $20.4 million into state-level politics to candidates and parties. That was a pretty good return.

The ruling eventually will undo many state laws regulating the use of corporate funds in elections and lawmaking. The laws go back to 1912, when the voters of Montana barred corporate funding after learning that William Clark, the copper baron, used his mining-company funds to bribe the Montana legislature into appointing him to a seat in the U. S. Senate.

The railroads owned the Arkansas legislature in those days, eventually surrendering it to the utilities, but Arkansas never got around to barring direct or indirect corporate spending on politics.

Republicans celebrated the Supreme Court decision, assuming that it will be a feast for their party and their candidates. But a U. S. Sen. Gilbert Baker or John Boozman might one day hear and want to oblige the faint voice of ordinary people. The CEOs of Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart, or ARAMCO, the Saudi Oil corporation's U. S. unit, or perhaps one of those union bosses might take offense and spend a few million dollars in an independent campaign to demonstrate to Arkansas voters the perfidy of their senator.

There will be opportunity for everyone to rue the day that five justices decided that corporations were entitled to supersede popular rule.


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