Mark Schmitt knows more about campaign finance than just about anyone, so when he says that the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, though awful, may not cause the sky to fall right away, I want to believe him. But there's an angle on this story that makes me really concerned, and it's not the one most people think about when they think about campaign finance.
When the Court ruled that corporations are now essentially free to engage in as much electioneering as they want, they didn’t just invalidate the federal laws prohibiting such activities. They also invalidated the state and local laws to that effect.
What this ruling does, on all levels, is bring a new level of fear to a professional class – politicians – not known for their courage. Even more than before, they will now go about their work every day knowing that if they get on the wrong side of the wrong corporation, they could get stomped.
As Michael Waldman (no relation) pointed out yesterday, the potential sums involved here are orders of magnitude greater than what we've seen before:
Isn't there a lot of money sloshing around in politics already? Consider Exxon-Mobil. In 2008, its political action committee (PAC) raised about $1 million from its employees and offices. Its profits that year -– which it was legally barred from pouring into politics -– were $45 billion. It was illegal for Exxon to spend that money on elections; now with this decision, it will be legal. Exxon or any other firm could spend Bloomberg-level sums in any congressional district in the country against, say, any congressman who supports climate change legislation, or health care, etc.
It's one thing if you’re a member of Congress. But imagine that you're on the city council of a town with 50,000 residents. In your last election, you spent about $45,000, or .0001 of one percent of Exxon’s profits, to win your seat. Let's say there’s some kind of dispute in the town that involves the company, and you aren't too favorably inclined toward the company's position. But you know that the company could take what is a piddling amount to them – let's say .001 of one percent of their profits, or $450,000 – drop it into your next election, outspending you by 10-1, and end your political career once and for all. Do you think that will enter into your calculations on the issue?
Corporations won't have to invest in local and state races all over the place to make that city council member live in fear – they'll only have to do it a few times, and everyone will get the message. The threat of enormous corporate spending will be sufficient to pull policy at every level of American government to the right. In some places that pull may be imperceptible, but in a lot of places it could be dramatic. Mayors, county supervisors, state representatives – they will all know that if they anger the wrong corporation, a Death Star of corporate money could zoom into their town or district and blast them into a million pieces.