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Opposition to U.S. Corporate Political Spending Gains Momentum

WASHINGTON, Jan 17 2013 (IPS) - Activists and watchdog groups across the United States unveiled a new national push on Thursday to urge policymakers to roll back a controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision that led to the unprecedented spending of about 6 billion dollars, much of it untraceable, during recent national elections.

Campaigns for those elections also saw the highest levels of spending by outside entities ever recorded, with 90 percent of campaign-related funding in more than 20 states reportedly coming from out-of-state. In an attempt to sway city polls in Richmond, California, the oil giant Chevron alone spent more than a million dollars, in addition to 2.5 million more across the country.

On Saturday, around one thousand protestors are expected to gather outside of the Chevron headquarters in Richmond to express their frustration with the massive new levels of corporate money in politics. They will be a part of coordinated demonstrations scheduled for more than 100 events in 33 states, organisers said Thursday.

“This level of spending by Chevron, for instance, changes what candidates are ‘allowed’ to talk about in elections – they’re no long necessarily covering the issues that voters want to hear about, but rather they’re bumping up against limits set by implied threats from big donors,” Aquene Freechild, a democracy organiser with Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog, told IPS.

“This type of money has allowed candidates that wouldn’t have been able to maintain any electoral position to stay in the race, while ensuring that issues important to big donors get airtime – or don’t get any,” Freechild said.

“There was almost no conversation on climate change in this election cycle, for example, and that may have had to do with fear that certain companies would come in and spend big money on negative attack ads.”

Two years ago, a contentious U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United opened the possibility for nearly unlimited anonymous corporate spending on political causes. The justices ruled that corporations’ right to engage in political spending as an extension of constitutionally guaranteed free speech cannot be limited.

Yet the justices also strongly supported transparency in that spending, as did a majority of people, election-time polling found.

During this weekend’s demonstrations, protestors will try to maintain momentum to roll back Citizens United at the state and federal levels, including through the long-term goal of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which three-quarters of states would need to support.

About 300 cities and 11 states have passed resolutions to support such an amendment. Several attempts were made in Congress last year to introduce amendment-related legislation, while a similar bill was re-introduced on Wednesday in the House of Representatives.

In what many transparency proponents saw as a major move, in late December the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also indicated that it would take up discussion to require all publicly traded companies in the United States to disclose any political spending.

Dark money

According to a new report released Thursday by two liberal non-profits, the Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD) and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, hundreds of millions of dollars in financing from the last election cannot be traced.

The report states that around 17 percent of business contributions to the “super PAC” groups that are allowed to engage in political campaigning came from “shell corporations”, which appear to have been set up solely to funnel corporate money.

“Dark money non-profits” also claimed to have spent around 300 million dollars, although that amount may in actuality be far higher because these groups are not required to disclose their funding sources.

“Not a lot of corporations made donations to super PACs,” Brendan Fischer, a researcher with CMD and co-author of the new report, told IPS. “Instead, it appears that corporations that wanted to spend on the election gave to these ‘dark money’ groups so the public wouldn’t know.”

“In many cases, this money is used for attack ads that are false, misleading, even offensive,” Fischer added. “This way, however, the funder doesn’t have to publicly stand behind such a message.”

While much of this money was aimed to benefit Republican candidates, Republicans overall did not do nearly as well as they had hoped in the last election. Yet Fischer and others have rejected the suggestion that outside money is not as insidious as originally feared.

“This still has a corrupting influence,” he said. “Candidates’ interests and policy positions are increasingly shaped by the people writing these big cheques.”

Outsized influence

The number of people actually writing those cheques, however, is remarkably small, extending outsized influence to a tiny group of donors.

“In a country of more than 300 million people, nearly all of the money raised by Super PACs came from just a few thousand,” according to a second report released Thursday, co-produced by U.S. PIRG and Demos, an advocacy group.

“Super PACs provided such a convenient avenue for large donors to dominate the political process that the top 32 Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Barack Obama and [Republican challenger] Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined.”

The end result, the authors say, is heavily skewed towards elites, special interests and incumbents.

According to CMD’s Fisher, there are potent lessons here for those outside the United States watching the evolution of the country’s democratic system.

“As developing countries expand protections for free speech, it is important to clarify that spending on elections should not be considered ‘speech’ and should not be subject to the same protections,” he said.

“What we have seen is that big donors are spending on elections not as a form of ‘speech’ but as a way to exert influence and buy access.”

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