Citizens United and Congressional Earmarks

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC shocked Americans across the political spectrum in announcing that corporations have the same rights as living, breathing persons to spend money to influence the political process.  Last week, following a spirited Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Senators on both sides of the aisle debated the Citizens United ruling, CAC released a comprehensive new report, A Capitalist Joker:  The Strange Origins, Disturbing Past, and Uncertain Future of Corporate Personhood in American Law. The report and testimony illustrate that the Court’s ruling is out of step with constitutional text and history, and a stark departure from past Supreme Court rulings on the constitutional rights of corporations. Meanwhile, evidence of the threat the Citizens United ruling poses to our democracy mounts.

The latest example comes from a congressional ethics committee investigation into the lobbying activities of Paul Magliocchetti & Associates Group (“PMA”), one of DC’s most powerful lobbying firms until it disbanded last year in the wake of an FBI investigation into its political contributions to members of Congress.  PMA’s specialty was obtaining earmarks for military contractors.  As the Washington Post recently reported, PMA’s corporate clients gave to seven well-placed members of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee $834,000 in campaign contributions, and received earmarks totally $245 million in public money.  Although the House Ethics Committee found no lawbreaking by the seven Representatives in doling out earmarks, the evidence showed that Representatives pushed for earmarks to PMA’s clients right after receiving big campaign contributions from corporate PACS or company executives.

Given the millions of dollars in public money up for grabs, it should come as no surprise that PMA strong-armed members of Congress with the power to distribute valuable earmarks, making clear that future contributions would not be forthcoming should members of Congress oppose earmarks to the military contractors PMA represented.  Disgust at practices such as these have led to an outburst of earmark reform over the course of the last week, but none of the reforms apparently will do much to rein in the power of corporations to spend money to obtain valuable earmarks.  If anything, the questionable practices described in the ethics report will only get worse now that Citizens United has given corporate political spending the highest levels of constitutional protection.

The Ethics Committee report shows how far corporations are already going to obtain special favors from members of Congress.  The report gives the lie to arguments that corporations are not interested in spending money to influence the political process.  On the contrary, the report shows that when corporations have a financial interest, they will not hesitate to exercise their financial might to influence the electoral process, even if that means strong-arming elected representatives into giving corporations special favors by holding out the lure of campaign cash.  Corporations – unlike living, breathing Americans – don’t participate in elections because they find a candidate inspiring or likable.  Corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize profits, which means, by law, they’re only in it for the money.   After Citizens United, corporations have the ability to use their massive treasuries to elect candidates willing to do their bidding.  It is an understatement to say that is not a good thing.