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Undercutting Democracy

January 22, 2010

It’s a busy week, but I feel compelled to comment on the US Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling on removing corporate spending limits for elections. In short, it is a mistake that will eat away at what remains of American democracy.

As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. Full editorial.

If you thought that lobbyists, corporations, and special interest groups had too much influence on American elections before, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The New York Times got it exactly right in today’s editorial condemning the decision: this is a blow to American democracy.

In 2006, winning a seat in the House of Representatives cost $1.3 million. For a seat in the US Senate, winning candidates spent an average of $8.8 million.  That figure is going to skyrocket in the next election. Already, the cost of running a viable campaign likely leaves some candidates quietly beholden to big financial backers– no matter who they are– corporations and unions alike.  At the very least, we know that money buys access. Senators and Members of Congress are busy people– what determines who gets a piece of their time? It seems natural that donors are more likely to get access than those who have not donated.

Consider an important parallel: Big Pharma funding for clinical drug trials. We know that if a company funds testing for a drug, that drug is statistically more likely to receive a favourable result.

By 2003 it was possible to do a systematic review of 30 studies comparing the outcomes of studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry with those of studies funded from other sources. Some 16 of the studies looked at clinical trials or meta-analyses, and 13 had outcomes favourable to the sponsoring companies. Overall, studies funded by a company were four times more likely to have results favourable to the company than studies funded from other sources. In the case of the five studies that looked at economic evaluations, the results were favourable to the sponsoring company in every case. Full article.

This is disturbing in itself considering that peer-reviewed journals are supposed to be the gold standard for vetting these trials. The problem though, is not that scientists are changing their data so much as the companies know how to ask the “right” types of questions to get favourable results. Part of knowing how to frame the questions in a favourable way has to do with resources. Essentially, you can game the system if you have enough money. Former editor of the British Medical Journal Richard Smith says here:

… there are many ways to hugely increase the chance of producing favourable results, and there are many hired guns who will think up new ways and stay one jump ahead of peer reviewers.

Then, various publishing strategies are available to ensure maximum exposure of positive results….

For a drug company, a favourable trial is worth thousands of pages of advertising, which is why a company will sometimes spend upwards of a million dollars on reprints of the trial for worldwide distribution…

Now think about how the vast amounts of corporate money have influenced doctors and scientists. These are professions that are regarded as holding the highest of ethical standards, and regard objectivity in their work as a golden rule. And yet the clinical trial system is now widely recognized as being contaminated by corporate money.

Returning to the Justices’ decision on campaign finance.

Consider what will happen to the American electoral system once the corporate money starts flooding in. Put yourself in the position of a Member of Congress who has to raise millions for her campaign every four years. It’s hard to imagine not giving your donors a sympathetic hearing– and this kind of access is half the battle.

Even for the most ethical and principled of individuals, I don’t see how the fundraising imperative could not affect your decision-making– even if it’s happening in an unconscious way.  How do you decide whose concerns to prioritize? Which way do you vote on a piece of legislation? What kind of amendments do you support? How do you negotiate for standing on the all-important Committee assignments? What is your standing within your own party? How much advertising can you afford during a campaign? Can you afford to pay for qualified campaign staff? Corporate money is going to affect all of these decisions.

While this ruling is going to pose a more serious problem for the Democrats in the short run, I doubt that individual Republican politicians are going to see this ruling as a good thing. It’s obvious that the Republicans might end up winning more elections, but in the end, they will also be answering to corporate interests.

Act now or forever hold your peace.

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