More than a decade ago, President Obama scolded the Supreme Court for reversing “a century of law” and opening “the floodgates for special interest” to “spend without limit in our elections.”
It was during the State of the Union, and while the former president qualified his criticism by offering “all due deference to the separation of powers,” Justice Samuel Alito was caught on camera muttering an objection.
Seated in the front of the House of Representatives, Alito seemed to say, “Not true.”
Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts, who had employed a young lawyer from Missouri just two years prior, didn’t move a muscle.
Sen. Josh Hawley told RealClearPolitics that the episode “predates me,” but on the substance of the question, the senior Republican senator from Missouri, the same young lawyer who once clerked for Roberts on the high court, sides with Obama, not the conservative justices.
Albeit for very different reasons.
“I am an originalist,” he said in a Monday interview, “and I don’t think you can make an originalist case for business corporations being treated like individuals when it comes to the right to political speech.”
Thirteen years removed from that exchange between Obama and the justices, Hawley plans to introduce legislation that would gut Citizens United v. FEC, RCP is first to report.
“My goal is to get corporate money out of our politics,” he said.
His aim is to stop “corporate influence” from “controlling our elections.”
This kind of rhetoric is not unusual. But it usually comes from Democrats.
President Biden pledged to overturn Citizens United and bring to heal the Super PACs that shower politicians with the kind of unlimited anonymous donations known colloquially as “dark money.” His closest ally in this effort: Progressive Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who blames the decision for turning America into “an oligarchy” where billionaires “buy elections.”
And now this coalition includes at least one Republican. Hawley blames Citizens United for giving corporations free rein to “sink their teeth” into the American political process.
The Hawley legislation would ban publicly traded corporations from making independent expenditures and giving to Super PACs while prohibiting them from cutting political ads or engaging in “other electioneering communications.” Ironically, however, it would not stop the conservative group that upended modern election law. Citizens United is itself a non-profit and, therefore, wouldn’t be affected.
The bill likely has little chance of making it to the president’s desk. Similar proposals have died in committee. All the same, the legislation represents the latest fissure between the Grand Old Party and the corporations. As the Republican realignment continues, on this issue, Hawley hammers the wedge.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” Hawley bellowed this summer, “Corporations are not people.”
The crowd, this one gathered in Washington for the social conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition summit, barely stirred.
But then they erupted when the populist senator continued, “I’ve got news for these woke corporations: We are not going to surrender this nation to the cultural Marxists in the C-suite.”
Would Hawley still seek to muzzle corporations if the content of their speech was different, though? “Well, actions do have consequences,” the senator replied.
Bad trade deals, monopolies over everyday pharmaceuticals, and offshore industries – Hawley blames all of this on Wall Street getting involved in politics, saying that politically connected corporations “have been in favor of almost everything that has been devastating for us.” Beyond economics, he added, “what’s new in the last two or three years” is those same corporations “now want to dictate voting laws in the states” and “now want to dictate rules on biological men playing women’s sports.”
For example, Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, two of the biggest employers in Georgia, publicly oppose that state’s efforts to tighten voter registration requirements in the wake of the 2020 election. Another example is the dark money donors who provided $145 million to pro-Biden groups that year, helping pave his way to the White House and dwarfing the $28.4 million spent on behalf of Donald Trump.
“That is not a reason in-and-of-itself to get the Constitution right,” Hawley cautions, however. While the senator insists that Democrats benefit disproportionately from dark money, he argued that “this isn’t a game that is good for anybody” and “most importantly, the voters don’t benefit from it.”
This is consistent with the general disposition of the senator who once wrote an adoring biography of Teddy Roosevelt. It is also an evolution from a politician who welcomed the endorsement and cashed the checks of Citizens United during his first campaign. Hawley does not dispute the development.
A closer examination of the history, he said, “looking back at how the Founders thought of corporations” reveals that the earliest Americans “were deeply skeptical of the corporate form.” On the jurisprudence question, he added, “I just don’t think that history supports the outcome that the Court ultimately got to there.”
More recent history can be found in the conservative opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Reflecting the view of that editorial board, Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, celebrated the anniversary of Citizens United in 2020, writing that “the ruling has empowered small-dollar donors and political outsiders, not corporations.” The donor who writes a check from the kitchen table, the former FEC chair argued, is now king in American politics, not the Super PAC.
Hawley suggests that those who doubt the power of corporate dollars in politics visit Capitol Hill. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he said before pointing to TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media company.
“A year ago, we were talking about a nationwide ban on TikTok. I was able to get one passed at the federal level last December,” he said.
“Today, it is difficult to get even my most ardent anti-tech partners to talk about this because TikTok has gone out and spent incredible sums of money to get influence on both sides of the aisle.”
According to federal disclosures, TikTok and its parent company spent more than $13 million on lobbying the federal government in the last four years. A spokesman for the company declined to address this when RCP requested comment.
Increasingly, Hawley is more likely to echo T.R. than Ronald Reagan. He notes how Roosevelt warned against “the malefactors of great wealth” and speaks admirably of his wars with the railroads. The senator also points to scandals of the past, like the Teapot Dome Scandal, as a prologue for modern malfeasance.
“Not a lot has changed in the last century. They would do that today, if they could get away with it,” Hawley said of disparate corporate actors from Silicon Valley to Wall Street without naming anyone in particular.
“And who knows,” he added, “maybe they are.”
Republicans who once felt at ease among corporate power are increasingly skeptical. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy publicly divorced the Chamber of Commerce this year. Ohio Sen. JD Vance is currently at war with the railroads over safety regulations. Businessman-turned-presidential-candidate Vivek Ramaswamy seemed to rebuke the ghost of Reagan during the August primary debate.
And last month, Hawley landed well to the left of the White House, but only slightly to the right of the likes of Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when he proposed capping the annual percentage rate of credit cards at 18%.
The Hawley project then can perhaps be best described as an effort to export traditional conservative skepticism of big government to the realm of big corporations. “What we find, and what lawsuits like the Missouri v. Biden case exposed, is that big corporations and big government work hand in hand,” he said referencing the federal case that found the White House lobbied social media companies to remove content critical of the administration.
“I would just say to my conservative friends, listen, there is no reason we should want to empower these mega-corporations, who are already in bed and colluding with the government, and give them control over our elections and over our speech,” Hawley said.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans will listen, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He celebrated the initial action by the Supreme Court.
“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process,” McConnell said in a statement when the conservative court handed down Citizens United, celebrating the decision as “an important step” in “restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups.”
A decade later, McConnell added, “My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics.”
As the Washington Post reported at the time, the Republican leader included a qualification during a local news conference.
“I’m not talking about political contributions,” he said.