There was a time when corporations didn’t have anything close to the power they do over politics in the US.
From the time of the Progressive Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century up until the mid-1950s, most states had laws that explicitly barred corporations from buying off politicians and spending millions to influence legislation.
In fact, there were laws on the books in virtually every state, often from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, that made it a crime for corporations to give money to lawmakers, political parties or political committees.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Until 1953, Wisconsin had one of those laws.
Wisconsin’s law against political contributions by corporations read in part,
“No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.”
So, what were the punishments for a corporation or corporate executive caught violating that law?
If it was an in-state corporation that violated the law, that corporation could be dissolved – it would get the corporate death penalty. If it was an out-of-state corporation, it could be barred from doing business in the state.
Meanwhile, people acting on behalf of a corporation who were caught faced stiff fines, up to five years of prison time, or both.
On top of that, Teddy Roosevelt got the Tillman Act passed in 1907 that made it a federal crime for a corporation to give money to any candidate for federal office. The Tillman Act, by the way, was blown up by five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court with the Citizens United decision.
Unfortunately, over time, laws like the one in Wisconsin were wiped from the books, and slowly but surely, corporate corruption and bribery have found their way into our political landscape.
The fallout from Nixon’s crimes – including him accepting personal bribes while Vice President and President – brought some new reforms in the mid-1970s, but most of those have been rolled back by the Supreme Court as well.
That brings us to today, where corporations have unprecedented power, influence and control over our political landscape.
Today, the United States’ largest corporations are spending small fortunes lobbying or simply buying lawmakers in Washington and across the country.
But, in today’s day and age, lobbying lawmakers to support specific legislation isn’t enough for corporations. They also have to win over the hearts and minds of the American people, in order to get people to vote against their own self-interest.
A new study from the Center for Public Integrity reveals that corporate America is spending billions and billions of dollars on advertising and PR efforts.
Take the American Petroleum Institute for example.
API, the mouthpiece for Big Oil corporations, spent over $7 million lobbying federal officials in 2012.
But, as the Center for Public Integrity points out, “that sum was dwarfed by the $85.5 million it paid to four public relations and advertising firms to, in effect, lobby the American public – including $51.9 million just to global PR giant Edelman.”
Meanwhile, CPI notes that business associations and trade groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, spent at least $214.9 million on PR and advertising campaigns between 2008 and 2012.
And, according to CPI, the US food and beverage industry shelled out an estimated $104.5 million on advertising and PR campaigns between 2008 and 2012.
A lot of that comes from the American Beverage Association, which continues to spend millions on stopping states from taxing unhealthy sugary drinks.
It’s bad enough that corporations are spending billions to buy off our lawmakers and corrupt our democracy.
But now, they’re spending billions more to convince us that we should support or ignore their bad behavior, and strip our own government of the power to protect us from these predators.
Whether it’s in the form of lobbying efforts or advertising campaigns, there’s too much corporate cash floating around and influencing the political process. It’s that simple.
We need to amend our Constitution to undo the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and to say that corporations are not people and that money is not speech.
And, while we’re at it, let’s bring back those political contribution laws that safeguarded our political process and that worked so well for so many years.