DEMOCRACY UNDER THREAT FROM NEW CORPORATE POWERS, EXPERTS WARN IN SAN DIEGO PANEL
U.S. Supreme Court ruling to allow unlimited corporate spending on elections heightens concerns
“Most Americans, especially champions of business deregulation and the free market, but also many members of Congress and state legislatures, would be shocked to learn that the Founding Fathers firmly believed that corporations were dangerous organizations which, if left unchecked, threatened the very freedom of the nation.” – John David Rose, author, Rescuing Capitalism from Corporatism
By Miriam Raftery
July 4, 2010 (San Diego) – At a “Defending Democracy” forum in San Diego on July 1st, a panel of experts raised concerns over the future of democracy in America from threats posed by increasing and unchecked corporate power.
“The U.S. Supreme Court put democracy up for sale to the highest bidder,” said Simon Mayeski from Common Cause in San Diego. In January, the high court ruled in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections because doing so would violate corporations’ free speech rights. As a result, Mayeski warns, “Corporations will now be free to bury us with political ads, because the court gives them the same rights as people.”
The decision also opens the door for corruption of public officials, Mayeski suggested, noting that the mere threat of a well-funded independent expenditure campaign backing an opponent could keep politicians in line without powerful corporations even needing to expend funds. Even BP, a British-owned firm, could wield influence in U.S. elections. “Multinationals can play this game, too,” Mayeski said at the forum held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego.
Common Cause is fighting back by supporting the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress. The plan allows candidates the option of choosing to accept matching funds and reject corporate and other large donors. The measure, which has bipartisan authorship, would require candidates to raise $50,000 in small donations from 1,500 people to qualify for funding in House races. Qualifications for Senate candidates vary according to a state’s population. Common Cause has set up an online petition site for citizens to sign in support of the Fair Elections Now Act.
Congress has also attempted to redress the Supreme Court decision by passing a disclosure act requiring disclosure of major donors funding independent expenditure campaigns. But the measure was watered down by both parties, with Republicans seeking breaks for corporations and exemptions for groups such as the National Rifle Association, while Democrats sought to exempt the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and labor unions, among others.
Other groups are looking into introducing a Constitutional amendment to eliminate “corporate personhood,” a concept established through an earlier Supreme Court ruling. But passing amendments to the U.S. Constitution is extremely difficult , requiring passage by a two-thirds majority by both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by three-fourths of the states—a daunting challenge made even more difficult by the prospect of well-funded corporate campaigns aimed at defeating any such measure.
Maintaining a healthy environment for small businesses, the backbone of the economy in many areas, to flourish is unquestionably important. Responsible mid-sized and large businesses, including some corporations, also contribute to economic vitality by providing jobs.
But profit-driven corporations answerable only to shareholders have too often taken corporate tax cuts, then outsourced American jobs. Some have made headlines for other actions that have arguable not been in the best interests of the American public.
The dangers of unchecked corporate power have been exemplified recently in the U.S. by BP’s role in the Gulf oil spill, the Wall Street meltdown, the mortgage crisis and the banking industry bailout, critics observe. The influence of lobbyists for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries on both parties sharply influenced the healthcare reform debate in Congress, while oil and coal industry lobbyists have pushed for weakening of clean air laws and other environmental protections.
While the GOP has long been perceived as the party most favorable to big business, the impact of corporate spending is felt on both sides of the aisle. Even many supporters of President Barack Obama, are troubled by campaign contributions he accepted from BP. In San Diego’s East County, opponents of Sunrise Powerlink have criticized Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon), now a candidate for State Senate, for failing to take a stance on Powerlink even after being fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for taking campaign contributions from SDG&E and other major donors in excess of legal limits.
Marjorie Cohn, law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, noted that the principal beneficiaries of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been corporate “war profiteers” such as Halliburton and Blackwater. Those two wars had resulted in deaths of over 5,500 U.S. soldiers to date as well as countless civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House is currently on the brink of approving another $33 billion supplemental war funding bill for the Afghanistan War.
In California, corporate tx rates have dropped steadily since 1981, even though corporate incomes have risen 154% in recent years, said Annie Lorrie Anderson-Lazo, PhD, who is involved in organizing efforts to close corporate tax loopholes through People United for Social Justice. The Governor’s proposed budget seeks cuts that his own spokesperson has called “terrible” – including the complete elimination of social safety net programs such as in-home care for senior citizens, Cal-Works (welfare to work and childcare), healthcare access for the poor, and more, as well as steep cuts in public education funding.
Yet Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republicans in the Legislature have staunchly refused to consider a rollback of recent corporate tax breaks “passed behind closed doors” or any new corporate taxes such as an oil extraction tax—even though Exxon Mobile paid no income taxes last year yet made record windfall profits of $46 billion. The current requirement for a two-thirds majority vote on any budget or tax increase has prevented Democrats from approving any budget with tax increases on corporations or anything else (such as a proposed 10 cent tax increase on alcoholic drinks, a move opposed by the alcohol industry), thus necessitating more deep cuts.
Corporate influence is also being seen in the trend toward privatizations of prisons and immigrant detention facilities. “Transnational corporations see a market for immigration detention,” said Pedro Rios, program director for the San Diego American Friends Service Committee. “One in San Diego is CTA—one of the worst in the U.S. They do not provide adequate healthcare, the facility is overcrowded, and they do not provide adequate access to legal counsel.” Other problems include lengthy separation of families and loss of due process, he said.
A corporation with a contract for a 22-mile stretch of “virtual border fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border is also building a wall around Palestine, Rios revealed. “Profit from broken immigration policies is happening on a global scale. The corporations call it `managed migration.’”
Attorney Ken Sobel, general counsel to the Southern California Sustainability Alliance and a former candidate for the Grossmont Union High School Board in East County, said that Proposition 23, the November ballot initiative aiming to repeal AB 32 is funded by “two Texas oil companies spending millions to pass the dirty energy proposition.”
Independent analyses by the Los Angeles Times and by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s office have both concluded that arguments claiming AB 32 is a job killer are deceptive. In fact, AB 32, which the Legislature passed to reduce air pollution and provide incentives for development of clean energy alternatives, has created a “booming green jobs sector” which has grown even when the economy slumped, Sobel said. “Since 2005, the green jobs sector has grown 10 times faster than other sectors in California.” He is working with the Sustainability Alliance of San Diego, a broad bipartisan coalition that aims to make our county energy self-sustainable by 2020.
A shocking 91% of California cities fail to meet air quality standards, according to the American Lung Association. “California has some of the worst air in the nation,” Sobel noted. “If Proposition 23 passes, we will be even more at risk—and more dependent on oil.”
He cites the BP oil disaster as case in point why America should be encouraging clean alternative energy solutions. As world oil reserves become depleted in easily accessible areas, deeper ocean drilling poses increasing risks. He noted that BP lied to federal regulators to obtain its recent drilling permits, listing a wildlife expert on its staff who had died in 2005, also cutting corners on safety measures.
Corporate control is impacting all three branches of the government, said Martin Eder, founder of Activist San Diego, who is working to bring independent radio stations to San Diego County.
“Corporations are above the three branches of government,” he said, adding that many of the problems in the world today are the result of “globalization run amok.”
Mera Szendro Bok, communications strategist for New Media Rights in San Diego, said corporate assaults on net neutrality and the Comcast-NBC proposed merger both pose threats to our democracy. If Comcast succeeds in buying a 51% share of NBC, “it will call the shots on one of five viewing hours in America,” she said, calling Comcast “one of the worst companies” for consumers. She predicts less diversity in voices if the merger goes through. Media consolidation has already resulted in domination of the public airways by a handful of corporations, many with anti-consumer or political agendas.
Threats to Internet neutrality could also mean “fewer choices and higher prices for communities” with corporate-owned media outlets have more access to Internet users than smaller independently-owned sites, Bok said.
Jon Monday, a local independent film producer with Monday Media, concurred, adding that the common thread running through many of the issues raised by other speakers is the need for media reform.
“We have a nation grounded in ignorance,” he said, citing declining media quality and diversity as the cause. “Thomas Jefferson once said that democracy can only survive when people have access to information.”
Among the most disturbing evidence was presented by Steven Freeman, founder of Election Integrity, senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the book Was the 2004 Election Stolen? Freeman has documented compelling evidence and statistical data to indicate that electronic voting machines can—and have—been rigged in American elections—and that San Diego’s voting machines are far from secure.
“Any first-year programming student could tell the machines to delete and change a couple of lines of code, and change the results of an election,” he said. High costs of recounts and judicial decisions have made it virtually impossible to overturn results even when evidence of tampering exists, he added.
In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, election officials claimed a terrorist threat and shut down observation of vote-counting to the press, an unprecedented move. The FBI later confirmed that no such threat had occurred. A recount of ballots in another Ohio area found ballots with orange stickers covering up holes on punchcard ballots for Kerry votes to fool the scanner into counting those as no votes. Outcomes in Ohio differed from exit polls for the first time in 100 years. Historically accurate election polls in three other states also had different outcomes from the election results in 2004—a factor Freedman attributes to use of electronic voting machines.
ECM editor Miriam Raftery once earned a national journalism prize from the American Society of Journalists & Authors for reporting on potential hacking/rigging problems with electronic voting machines nationally and locally. She has also interviewed a whistleblower inside the Diebold voting machine company who revealed that he was convinced elections were intentionally tampered with by the corporation, and disclosed details of how tampering was accomplished through insertion of software “patches.” (A day after that story ran in a national publication, Diebold CEO Wally O’Dell resigned; two days later shareholders filed a lawsuit and the company sold off its elections division soon after.)
One chart displayed by Freedman proved compelling. In a national study, he revealed, “where votes were cast on paper and counted by hand, there was virtually no disparity” between exit polls and election results. But when votes were counted on machines, a 7% disparity was found nationwide.
San Diego presently uses primarily optical scan voting machines, in which paper ballots are fed through a central tabulating machine to be read, both for ballots cast at polls and mailed-in absentee ballots.
Some local election reform groups are now calling for a return to paper ballots hand-counted at precincts—even if that means drafting citizens to count ballots on election night in much the same way that citizens are currently called for jury duty.
“Without your right to vote, all your other rights can be taken away,” Freeman concluded. “Those who control elections can and will plunder the nation.”
John David Rose, author of Rescuing Capitalism from Corporatism, observes that the founders of our democracy actually imposed severe limits on corporate power, recognizing that corporations seek monopolies, not a free market. His book proposes that America reenact six controls that the founding fathers originally imposed to restrict corporate domination, along with some new proposals of his own to assure the rights of people over corporations.
“History reveals that the Founding Fathers hated and feared the corporate form of enterprise more than the monarchy itself,” he concludes. “So how did we stray from their sensible restraints on corporate power?”
“I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." -- Thomas Jefferson