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Updated: May 9, 2010 23:53 IST

A fight for the soul of American democracy

Narayan Lakshman
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Barack Obama
Photo: AP Barack Obama

Obama is pitted against Washington's powerful lobbies and going against the judiciary's will in his latest fight.

You thought the healthcare battle in the United States was fiercely fought? You think the White House and Congress are slugging it out over Wall Street reform? Well, you have not seen anything yet because the most wrenching battle, a fight for the very soul of American democracy, may be yet come. Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts.

Recently, President Barack Obama virtually chalked out the battle lines when he said: “What we are facing is no less than a potential corporate takeover of our elections … This should not be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is an issue that goes to whether or not we will have a government that works for ordinary Americans — a government of, by, and for the people. That is why these reforms are so important and that is why I am going to fight to see them passed into law.”

Growing rift

At the heart of the conflict coming to a boil, is a deep and growing rift between the U.S. political executive and judiciary over transparency around how powerful lobbies wield tremendous influence in Washington. As Mr. Obama put it, “Every time a major issue arises, we have come to expect that an army of lobbyists will descend on Capitol Hill in the hopes of tilting the laws in their favour … the voices of ordinary Americans were being drowned out by the clamour of a privileged few in Washington.”

Matters came to a head in January this year when the Supreme Court passed judgement on the case Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. The court voted five-to-four that political spending by corporations in candidate elections would be permitted, free of government restrictions.

While the justification for the ruling was the protection of the First Amendment's right to free speech, critics noted that “allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy” and that this decision of the court “represented a sharp doctrinal shift, and it will have major political and practical consequences”, including reshaping the way elections are conducted.

But that was only the beginning. At the State of the Union address shortly after the decision, Mr. Obama — a former professor of law — chided the Supreme Court for allowing special interests a backdoor entry into the policymaking arena.

During the address, Mr. Obama said: “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”

He went on to say that elections ought to be decided only by the American people, and that is why he was urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to “right this wrong”.

Following Mr. Obama's comments, Democrats in the chamber, who were seated around the six Supreme Court Justices present, stood and applauded.

The Justices, in the front and second rows of the House chamber, sat motionless and expressionless. However, Justice Samuel Alito appeared to be mouthing “not true, not true”, and shaking his head in disagreement.

Chief Justice John Roberts later recalled that moment, saying: “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering, while the court according to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”

Yet, in his address to the American public, Mr. Obama repeated his warning about the negative consequences that the Supreme Court ruling would have on democratic practice: “In the starkest terms, members [of Congress] will know — when pressured by lobbyists — that if they dare to oppose that lobbyist's client, they could face an onslaught of negative advertisements in the run up to their next election. And corporations will be allowed to run these ads without ever having to tell voters exactly who is paying for them.”

Reforms

He further set out some of the main reforms that he hopes Congress will pass to mitigate the effect of the Supreme Court decision. These include getting “shadowy” campaign committees to reveal their financial backers.

Additionally, corporations and special interests that take to the airwaves would have to reveal their source of funding and claim responsibility for it. “This will mean citizens can evaluate the claims in these ads with information about an organisation's real motives,” Mr. Obama said.

Finally, foreign corporations and foreign nationals would, under the Obama proposals, be restricted from spending money to influence American elections — even via U.S. subsidiaries; and large contractors receiving taxpayer funds would no longer be able to interfere in elections.

In a sign of his determination to bring the fight to the lobbies' doorstep, Mr. Obama quoted President Theodore Roosevelt, saying that every special interest was entitled to justice but not one was entitled to a vote in Congress, a voice on the bench, or representation in any public office. Urging for more transparency in Washington's dealings, he added, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

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