Yet while Citizens United hamstrung many longstanding efforts to keep the very wealthy from dominating elections, it did not render lawmakers completely impotent. Later today, the New York Senate’s State Senate Corporations Committee is expected to vote on bill sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D) that will invoke many of the few remaining tools left to elected officials concerned about big money’s impact on democracy:
“As we all look on in horror at the effect of Citizen’s United on the political process, here in New York, we have a chance to do something about it. This bill would reign in unchecked corporate influence in a way that the Supreme Court still allows,” Mr. Squadron told The Politicker. “It would require shareholders of corporations to approve political spending, it would require disclosure of political spending and it would require corporations to justify the corporate purpose of that spending. Too often people are using corporations to grind their own political axe. It’s not good for shareholders and it’s not good for the political system.”
The Corporate Political Accountability to Shareholders Act would require “that corporate contributions to a political candidate or party committee or in support or opposition to a candidate or ballot referendum be approved by a majority of shareholders.” Mr. Squadron believes his legislation could be a model for other states to address the growing controversy over corporate influence on the political process.
Requiring corporations to disclose their political spending is a common goal of post-Citizens United campaign finance proposals in light of the fact that the Supreme Court expressly held that disclosure laws are still allowed. The most intriguing part of Squadron’s bill, however, is the requirement that a corporation’s shareholders approve its political spending before the corporation is allowed to attempt to influence an election.
Despite the Supreme Court’s naive claim that corporate spending is necessary to preserve the First Amendment’s guarantee that all speakers be allowed to participate in the marketplace of ideas, the reality is that Citizens United forces millions of Americans to spend their own money on corporate speech they disapprove of. When a publicly-traded corporation lends its vast wealth to elect candidate X, it does so even though a majority of its shareholders could prefer candidate Y. Squadron’s bill would go a long way toward ensuring that shareholders do not have their investment dollars spent to elect candidates they despise.
To be sure, Squadron’s bill is only a modest step in this direction — a stronger bill could forbid corporations from attempting to buy an election absent the unanimous consent of their shareholders, or require shareholders to approve each and every ad a corporation wants to lend financial support to before it may run. Nevertheless, his focus on shareholder democracy is an important step towards mitigating the harm caused by Citizens United. Lawmakers in the other 49 states and in Congress would do well to follow Squadron’s example and introduce similar bills.