The retirement decisions by Senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan last week gave pundits and analysts story leads, but a far more important announcement is coming, maybe as soon as tomorrow. The Supreme Court, with its five-justice conservative majority, is expected imminently to release its long-awaited decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The ruling could have a much greater influence on the prospects of progressives in 2010 than any individual candidate’s decision to run. Indeed, the Court could change electoral politics as we know it in America today by perverting the Constitution to bar the people and their elected representatives from limiting corporate political spending.
Citizens United involves a hit-job documentary called Hillary, The Movie, produced by David Bossie for Citizens United to coincide with the 2008 presidential primary season. The case began as a relatively insignificant, technical challenge to the Federal Election Commission’s decision to treat the film’s production and release as "corporate electioneering," subject to regulation under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. It was transformed into a potential blockbuster last June when the Supreme Court ordered the parties to brief and argue the question of whether the law itself, which restricts the political use of corporate funds, is unconstitutional and whether prior cases upholding such restrictions should be overruled.
Citizens United is now arguing that expenditures by corporations in elections should be treated identically to those of individuals. If the Court accepts this argument, it would jettison a distinction that has been in place in our Constitution since it was written and in our statutory law since the Tillman Act of 1907. As a result, corporations would get a green light to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.
To see the significance of this, consider that in his historic run to the presidency, Barack Obama broke every political fundraising record, raising nearly $750 million from more than a million contributors in 2007 and 2008. This sounds impressive until you consider that during 2008 alone, ExxonMobil Corporation generated profits of $45 billion. With a diversion of even 2 percent of these profits to the political process, Exxon could have far outspent the Obama campaign and fundamentally changed the dynamic of the 2008 election, perhaps even the result.