Supreme Court Ruling Empowers Corporations More Than Labor Unions

Don’t be fooled by those who say that corporations and labor compete on the same level.

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By Laura Chapin, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

DENVER--Coloradoans were treated to a lovely headline in Friday's Denver Post: " GOP to Sue Over Limits." Inspired by this week's Supreme Court decision abolishing the ban on corporate political advertising, state Republicans are now taking aim at a similar state ban.

When Colorado voters defeated Amendment 48, which would have created a new definition of "personhood" in the Colorado Constitution (defining a fertilized human egg as a "person"), little did they know the Supreme Court would create a new definition of "personhood" in the United States Constitution. As Justice Stevens put it in his dissent:

"The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case… In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They 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."

And these new corporate "persons" are wasting little time trying to overturn voter-approved limits in Colorado on campaign spending. Right now, direct corporation or union spending is forbidden in state races, thanks to a ballot measure approved in 2002, the same year as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The law also limits individual and PAC contributions to candidates to $400.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, business and corporate interests accounted 70.8 percent of the total U.S. political contributions in 2007-2008, while only 2.7 percent came from labor. Political Action Committees (PACs) show a similar disparity: 69.5 percent from business, 15.7 percent from labor. The center does issue this caveat: "CRP uses employer/occupation information to categorize donors, and because just about everyone works for a business, contributions from members of labor unions and ideological groups are often classified under business."

Still, the gap is big enough that it's clear corporations have both the will and the ability to vastly outspend unions. And yes, this includes "527s"--tax-exempt organizations that engage in political activities. Republican-leaning 527s spent almost $13 million in 2008, Democratic ones about $8.3 million.

If the GOP and its corporate allies have their way, you can kiss the will of Colorado voters goodbye. And no, the fact that the Supreme Court ruling would potentially lift the limits on union contributions doesn't make things equal. The checkbook for corporations dwarfs that of labor. It's not a level playing field in any sense of the phrase--corporations versus unions is like the Texas Longhorns going up against an NCAA Division III team.

And at least that contest would involve real persons.