Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
posted Sept. 23, 2009

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Outcome of Supreme Court Case Could Unleash
Corporate Power in U.S. Elections

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Nick Nyhart,
president of Public Campaign,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus


During the last presidential election, a group called Citizens United produced a TV documentary attacking then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Its broadcast raised the question of whether the documentary would be protected free speech or regulated as political communication. Initial court decisions ruled it was an attack ad that should be regulated under election laws.

After the election, the five-judge conservative majority on the Supreme Court decided to use this case to revisit a 1990 Supreme Court ruling, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that banned corporations from spending money to influence elections. Arguments before the Court -- the first case to include new associate justice Sonia Sotomayor -- took place in early September and a ruling is expected this November.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of special interest money in American politics. He explains how, if the Court reverses its Austin decision, the decision could deepen the problem of big money in politics -- and lays out Public Campaign's blueprint for campaign finance reform.

NICK NYHART: Right now, corporations can act in elections through political action committees and they can't dip into their corporate treasury money -- the money they get from consumers and their customers to spend in politics. They have to raise it from voluntary contributions from their employees. And in reviewing this case, they open the door to the possibility of allowing corporate money to influence elections much more than it does now. And that's what has people alarmed.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What would be the connection between this decision that's being revisited and the McCain-Feingold Act -- which is somewhat limited anyway -- and campaign finance spending?

NICK NYHART: Well, the McCain-Feingold law prohibited corporations from direct treasury contributions to political parties, spending their money -- so-called "soft money" -- money that indirectly impacts elections. And it said simply, we're going to take that off the board. And as part of opening up what corporations can give and how directly they can give, they can open that up. But the really interesting thing here is that by going back to 1990 and reviewing this old case -- and that's what they want to re-hear arguments on -- they may roll the clock back much further to when corporations were allowed to directly spend on elections. And the worry always has been that corporations have special legal protections and they also have the economic power to concentrate large amounts of wealth. And then to use that on politics would really give the corporate community influence in a democracy that's simply inappropriate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Because corporations are legally persons, right?

NICK NYHART: They are legally persons in some sense, but they also get a bunch of protections, like limited liability, and as people who sell other people things they need, they have the ability to aggregate capital that just is different from what most ordinary people have. They also have a responsibility to shareholders and one of the problems with corporations spending treasury money is that there are shareholders who may not want that money spent in that way. So, just as consumers, when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you may not want some of that coffee money to go to certain political candidates, but you lose all control over that. By the same token, if you are a shareholder in a company like Starbucks, and you don't want corporate management to spend your money on politics, you really lose the ability to influence that, and they may spend money on candidates you don't like. So that's one argument against it.

But the real danger is that the trillions and trillions of dollars that corporations command in our society could all of a sudden be applied to politics, and the couple billion that is spent on politics every year right now would be dwarfed by the capacity of elite special interests that have their bottom line at stake, but don't necessarily have the general welfare at stake. In fact, they're obligated by their corporate charters to perform for their shareholders, not society as a whole.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There's been a lot of criticism about all the corporate money that's flowed into the health care reform debate. Many members of Congress are getting lots of donations from corporate interests. What impact could this possible reconsideration of the Austin decision have on issues like this?

NICK NYHART: We've seen the impact of campaign giving on debates like the health care debate, but also the financial sector, and global warming -- you see the oil and gas money, you see the mortgage banking money flowing in. And with campaigns so expensive, candidates need to depend on large contributors to be able to run a race. And so what you're saying is that if we allow the corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections -- which could come out of this ruling...I don't think it's going to go that far, but they've opened the door to it certainly. If you allow that, then you're saying as a candidate you've got to defend yourself in elections, you've got to go and raise $2,400 at a time and turn to those people to protect yourself. And the ordinary voter, who might give $10 or $15 or $100, or nothing to campaigns, just has less power and less of a voice in elections.

No matter what the ruling is in Citizens United, the clear way to empower the voices of ordinary people in this setup within election campaigns is to have publicly financed elections. And in the model we're exploring right now for Congress -- and it's being championed by Connecticut's own Congressman John Larson -- small donors would qualify people for public financing, but if candidates needed more money beyond their initial grant of public financing, they could get it by getting more small contributions which then would be matched on a four-to-one basis. So in that case, a candidate facing an onslaught of special interest money and wealthy contributions -- the route to success for them is not to court wealthy contributors themselves, but to go back into their districts to their constituents and raise small donations. So it allows ordinary people a really important voice in campaigns. And if you have public financing, no matter what way the Citizens United case is decided, that's going to be the best protection for the voices of ordinary people.

Contact Public Campaign by calling (202) 293-0222. Or visit their website at

Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Oct. 2, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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