By Erica Payne
Founder, Agenda Project; author, The Practical Progressive: How to Build a 21st Century Political Movement
A year ago last week the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent and granted corporations the same right to free speech previously enjoyed by individuals. The Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to a torrent of corporate influence on our democracy. Many Americans were surprised by the decision, a few recognized it for what it was — the inevitable conclusion of a four-decade-long strategy designed by a Democrat and executed by the Chamber of Commerce and its corporate backers.
In 1971 prior to his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce detailing a multifaceted plan to dramatically increase the influence of corporations on our democracy. In that memo, Powell called the courts “the most important instrument for social, economic and political change” and stated that “this is a vast area of opportunity for the Chamber, if it is willing to undertake the role of spokesman for American business and if, in turn, business is willing to provide the funds.”
Needless to say, they were willing to provide the funds.
Today the Chamber of Commerce describes itself as a “lobbying and political powerhouse.” The National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC) serves as an in-house law firm and boasts of entering in 2009 alone “134 new cases of significance to the business community.” The Chamber of Commerce is also a front for corporate money in campaigns. During the health care debate, the insurance lobby secretly gave the Chamber $86.2 million to support the campaign against reform.
Corporations have cultivated a revolving door policy with the Judicial Department. Every solicitor general from the past 15 years, other than Justice Elena Kagan, left their post of public service to work at firms representing corporate interests.
As Powell thought they might, the Chamber has obviously found that “the opportunity merits the necessary effort.” The Roberts Court not only takes on more economically oriented cases than its predecessor, it is also more likely to reach a pro-corporate verdict.
The Powell Memo was so vast in scope and scale that had the genesis of the plan been a foreign nation, the U.S. would have declared war against the country seeking to infiltrate our government. But because the enemy of American democracy lay inside our borders rather than out, no war was waged and the enemy won.
Last week, Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group, filed a petition requesting the Justice Department investigate whether Justices Anotnin Scalia and Clarence Thomas should have recused themselves from the Citizens United case due to personal relationships with the Koch brothers (Koch Industries). For decades, the Koch family has been one of the anchor funders of conservative organizations. That leadership continues today. The benefit they received from the Citizens United verdict speaks for itself.
Both justices will be attending the Koch brother’s political retreat in Palm Springs later this month. Accusations of impropriety aside, it seems a fitting celebration for the one-year anniversary of big business’s crown jewel in the courts.
Throughout history, our leaders have warned of threats to our democracy. Washington warned of sacrificing our sovereignty through entanglements abroad, Theodore Roosevelt set out to bust the corporate trusts that threatened to swallow up our democracy, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously cautioned that only an “aware and informed citizenry” could protect the country from the growing influence of the military-industrial complex (interestingly an early version of that speech warned of the military-industrial-congressional complex).
By the looks of this year’s Supreme Court docket, the corporate coup will continue unabated. The Chamber of Commerce has filed amicus briefs in more than half of the cases slated for oral arguments this month alone. Among other things, this year the court is considering denying women the right to join together as a ‘class’ to pursue a sex-discrimination suit against Walmart. Most recently the court is considering offering corporations personal privacy rights in FCC vs. AT&T.
The right to free speech. The right to privacy. The right to bear arms? What’s next? The right to vote? Maybe the right to run for office.
President Halliburton anyone?
Erica Payne is a public policy expert, commentator, author and strategist. She is a founder of the Tesseract Group and Democracy Alliance in addition to the Agenda Project. The Agenda Project is a New York-based hub of public policy discussion and strategy debate for influencers from business, media, philanthropy, government and non-profit organizations. The Agenda Project’s monthly newsletter, Practical Progress, is read by 10,000 political and philanthropic leaders. The Tesseract Group is a boutique consulting firm that provided strategy and communications expertise to public policy and political organizations. Democracy Alliance is a donor collaborative whose partners have invested over $100 million in progressive organizations. Payne also served as a senior strategist for the Roosevelt Institute and deputy national finance director for the Democratic National Committee. She serves on the boards of advisors of Health Care for American Now the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
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Posted February 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm, in From the News