February 10, 2012
Persons?: Firms aren't people

Here's a puzzle: One of West Virginia's election laws (Code 3-8-12d) says:

"A person entering into any contract with the state or its subdivisions, or any department or agency of the state ... may not ... directly or indirectly, make any contribution to any political party, committee or candidate for public office."

However, corporate chiefs holding state contracts commonly donate to politicians and election committees. How can they get away with it? Attorney General Darrell McGraw once explained to us, with a tinge of sarcastic disgust:

"You don't understand personhood. The 'person' holding the contract is a corporation, but the firm's president is a different person. Joe Jones Inc. is one person, while Joe Jones, president, is a different person. See?"

What a mess. What legalistic hairsplitting. Anyone reading the state law would assume that it forbids a vendor company boss to give money to politicians -- but apparently not.

Two years ago, at the national level, corporate "persons" were unleashed to buy U.S. elections wholesale. In the notorious Citizens United case, conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons with a right of free speech, just like human Americans. The high court defines "speech" to include money for campaign ads. Therefore, billion-dollar corporations can funnel cash into political advertising -- usually smears -- to elect their favorites, in hope of getting government favors in return.

This ruling opened floodgates for firms to give millions to "super PACs" that supposedly are separate from candidates, but actually work hand-in-glove with them. The super PACs have overwhelmed the current GOP presidential race, funding exaggerated smears.

Last week in Missouri, candidate Rick Santorum accused rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney of engaging in "gutter politics" because Romney's side spent $15 million in Florida to smear Gingrich, and Gingrich blew as much as he could to defame Romney.

Former President Jimmy Carter said on Voice of America:

"This massive injection of millions and millions -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- and the spending of a lot of that money on a negative campaign to destroy the reputation and character of our opponents is what has divided our country."

When right-wingers on the Supreme Court declared that corporations are "persons" with an unlimited right to "free speech" (meaning political cash), they helped turn election campaigns into a cesspool.

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