In an 1816 letter, Thomas Jefferson declared his hope to “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.” This skepticism was enshrined in law in the early 20th century when the nation adopted strict rules banning corporations from contributing to political campaigns. Today that ban is in danger from the Supreme Court, which hears arguments next month in a little-noticed case that could open the floodgates to corporate money in politics. The court has gone to extraordinary lengths to hear the case. And there are worrying signs that there may well be five votes to rule that the ban on corporate contributions violates the First Amendment… The court’s conservative majority has been aggressively championing the rights of corporations, but overturning the contributions ban would take it to a new level. Corporations have enormous treasuries, and there are a lot of things they want from government, many of which clash with the public interest. If the ban is struck down, corporations may soon be writing large checks to the same elected officials whom they are asking to give them bailouts or to remove health-and-safety regulations from their factories or to insert customized loopholes into the tax code. If the conservative justices strike down the ban, they would be doing many things they disavow. They would be substituting their own views for the will of the people, expressed through Congress. They would be reading rights into the Constitution that are not expressly there, since the Constitution never mentions corporations or their right to speak. And they would be overturning the court’s own precedents. The only hope is that the court is listening to Americans.
The founders were wary of corporate influence on politics — and their rhetoric sometimes got pretty heated.