Monday, February 1, 2010

Join Me in My Next Bold Move - Supreme Court Citizens United Ruling

coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
i guess.......

The mighty multinationals
have monopolized the oxygen
so it's as easy as breathing
for us all to participate

yes they're buying and selling
off shares of air
and you know it's all around you
but it's hard to point and say "there"
so you just sit on your hands
and quietly contemplate.......Ani DiFranco, Reckoning


The Short of It
  • Partisan politics aside, the recent Supreme Court ruling is mindblowing
  • I was unable to blog last week because of it
  • Sitting, staring, reading, learning
  • And deciding whether I lose readers or gain readers
  • I have a responsibility to say something
  • And then do something
  • No matter how small and insignificant I may be
The Long of It

In a democratic society, the longstanding consensus on the need to limit corporate campaign spending should outweigh the wooden application of judge-made rules. The majority’s rejection of this principle “elevate[s] corporations to a level of deference which has not been seen at least since the days when substantive due process was regularly used to invalidate regulatory legislation thought to unfairly impinge upon established economic interests.” Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 817, n. 13 (White, J., dissenting). At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics. - Justice Stevens, dissent on Citizens United vs FEC.

The recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate campaign finance defies conventional wisdom and overturns a century of accepted legal precedent.  Justice Stevens, writing for the minority in the dissent, is empassioned and precise in his criticism of it.  In my view, this decision is too important to be cast in purely partisan terms.  I don't think it's any secret that my personal politics lean to the left but this stunning ruling has implications far beyond the arguments of the day.  Unfettered corporate participation in our political sphere should supercede the "liberal" or "conservative" perspective as it holds consequences for all.  Beyond the decision itself, the manner in which the court arrived at it's conclusion is also worth examining and paying particular attention to.

Don't just take my word for it and don't just reference your favorite media outlets take on the issue.  Do not depend on the distillation and spin sure to come.  You have a responsibility to take the time to actually read these documents, inform yourselves and then draw your own conclusions.  Read the majority opinion first.  Then read Justice Stevens dissent(Read all 90 pages.  Then read it again.)  Here's the whole thing if you want to wonk out and get wild. 

Also, read other articles examing these issues from the nonprofit perspective.  Here are just two suggestions: Supreme Court Strikes Down Laws Banning Corporate Expenditures by Ronald M. Jacobs of Venable LLP, and an article and chart from Alliance for Justice.  (Keep your eyes out for others I am sure are being drafted as we speak and feel free to shoot them my way.)

My government affairs experience is largely in terms of how the system works (or doesn't work) in California.  (This upcoming 2010 election cycle, already promised to be a mess, just got that much worse.)  However, the brief time I spent going up against the car dealers and manufacturers working on the Consumers Right to Repair Act did nothing to convince me the national stage is any better.

I can assure you anyone claiming special interests do not hold significant sway on how politicians vote in California (and elsewhere) are either delusional or deliberately distorting how the process works.  Strategy sessions routinely (and by necessity) include the price tag discussion and frank evaluation of the oppositions ability to raise funds as well.  I have yet to participate in a discussion regarding donating to a candidate that did not have an implicit "expectation" that said candidate would support the associations issues upon election.  Carefully framed "candidate questionnaires" used to make decisions about who to give to are a common and accepted practice. 

Don't get me wrong.  I am not saying that fundraising and advocacy are inherently evil.  I routinely (if naively) make donations to those political entities I believe will most closely represent my interests once in office.  Associations have long provided powerful and necessary ways for citizens to band together as groups and participate in the democratic process.  However, anybody who claims money does not influence outcomes or that we are not outgunned by the sheer financial resources commanded by corporate entities both within and without our borders is barking mad. 

The Supreme Court limiting the discussion of potential corruption and influence from unlimited independent expenditures to "quid pro quo" arrangements is laughable in light of the fact that none of us who operate in this sphere would be dumb enough to suggest such an overt arrangement to begin with.  The claim that expenditures are "independent" and "uncoordinated" and therefore don't directly underwrite the candidates in question flies in the face of logic and common sense.

And now, I have something to ask.

Have we, in nonprofit trade and professional associations, been complicit in the system and what lengths are we willing to go to in order to attempt to mitigate the damage we can be sure will come with this ruling?

Do I believe corporate interests will release a waterfall in the 2010 elections?  Actually, I don't.  I think they will tend to lay low until the outrage dies down.  They are playing a longer game.  They will continue to engage in the usual manner, perhaps ramping up participation here and there.  But overt "buying and selling" of political clout has never been part of the strategy.  (As Ani says, "you know it's all around you but its hard to point and say there.")

So, Ani asks me what my next bold move will be.  Well, here it is.

I may be nobody in particular but I am still planning to convene a conference call in the near future on this topic.  I would like to invite association executives, consultants, attorneys, government affairs specialists and other interested parties to join me for a philosophical discussion that centers on four key points:

1.  Developing a clearer understanding about the impact of this decision on the trade and professional association community
2.  Brainstorming specific recommendations for the association community operating government affairs initiatives in the 2010 cycle and beyond
3.  Developing talking points for associations to use as they educate their members regarding this decision
4.  Exploring ideas on how the association community could collaborate on actions aimed at potentially mitigating the unmistakable impact this decision will have

I realize how difficult and potentially divisive this conversation could be.  Many associations are even now preparing challenges to PAC rules and regulations.  Some members of the 501(c)3 community are already making noises about going after a loosening of  restrictions on tax-exempt organizations imposed by the IRS rules and regs claiming infringement on their rights to "free speech."  Many associations have corporate members who will be only too happy to move forward on their legislative agendas.  Some associations have even been advocating for such action in order to circumvent current spending restrictions and will see this decision as a positive outcome for them.

But, I would like to believe that some association professionals, some association boards, some volunteers would see this for what it is.  An assault on democratic principles that directly undermines our electoral process.  Even those nonprofits who are drinking the Kool-aid and suddenly feel unburdened with spending limits surely recognize the folly of assuming they won't be easily outspent by interests that have billions of dollars on tap.

Will you at least join me for a discussion?  DM me on twitter @shellyalcorn or email me at shellyalcorn@gmail.com if you would like to be notified when this call is scheduled so you can participate.  I welcome all perspectives and points of view (yes, even positive ones - from a strategic point of view we need to find some positives in here somewhere to remain somewhat competitive on behalf of our members and their interests) but ask that those who participate accept the overall premise that this decision is a bad one that needs to be coped with, not celebrated.  If you have a desire to be disruptive in any way or are diametrically opposed to the notion that this decision has overall negative consequences I respectfully request that you find other venues to spend your time in.

you want to track each trickle
back to its source
and then scream up the faucet
'til your face is hoarse
cuz you're surrounded by a world's worth
of things you just can't excuse


What's your next bold move....what's the next thing you're gonna need to prove to yourself.....?

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