The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court and the follow-up Occupy Wall Street movement reflect the complicated relationships we have with large American corporations.
I’m writing this column in a newspaper that is owned by a corporation. I have been employed by corporations (for-profit and not-for-profit). Just about anyone with a retirement account is probably a part owner of one or more corporations. My father worked for one corporation for 42 years and his income kept food on the table and sent us off to college.
The largest U.S. corporations, however, have wielded a great deal of power for the past 150 years. IBM, Vermont’s largest employer, has a great deal of clout. No one wants IBM leaving Vermont in a huff. Keeping the corporate employers we have is important as jobs flow overseas or to Southern states.
So, what difference does it make that corporations can contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns? Why is "Citizen Corp." such a threat?
We all know that corporations lobby Congress, state legislators and local officials. They want laws, rules, regulations and policies to make their businesses more profitable. They want legislators and elected officials to know that adverse conditions might lead to company relocations and loss of jobs. I suppose there’s not much we can do about that other than require that lobbyists register; that gives the process has some transparency. We can also make offering bribes a criminal offense.
The capacity to carry out unfettered political giving, however, is more ominous. Sen. Bernie Sanders, during his recent visit said that unlimited corporate political contributions can be used to intimidate elected officials. When there’s an issue on the House or Senate floor, said Senator Sanders, a corporate representative could make it clear to an office holder that an adverse vote could lead to massive retaliation at the next election. The largest corporations in the U.S. have huge amounts of money they can spend, unfettered, in elections.
If JPMorganChase could lose $9 billion in some bad trades, what’s to stop them from pouring similar amounts into election campaigns against any elected official who votes for laws designed to limit corporate excesses -- such as those that led to the Bush-era financial collapse, from which we are barely recovering now?
Corporate officers, employees and customers can all contribute to political campaigns to the extent allowed by law. Those contributions can be given to candidates, PACS, advocacy funds and the like. But there are limits.
As someone who owns pieces of a number of companies through my retirement accounts, am I able to keep the corporate leadership from making political contributions with my money? It’s very hard for individual shareholders to put limits on corporate officers when huge amounts of stock are owned by mutual funds, college pensions, state pensions and the like.
Sen. Sanders proposes a constitutional amendment to make it clear corporations don’t have all the rights of individuals, including unfettered political spending rights. Right on, Bernie! We should all support this amendment if we want our nation to remain a democracy rather than become an oligarchy.
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.