We the people.
Those are, of course, the first words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. "We the people of the United States . . ."
It doesn't say anything about corporations.
So count me among those mystified by January's Supreme Court decision to sweep away decades of established law limiting the amount of money corporations can inject into political campaigns. The court ruled, 5-4, that corporations enjoy the same right to free speech as persons do. Speech being defined as writing large checks to political candidates.
The ruling raised the very real specter that our next president will be sponsored, not elected — a chilling prospect to those of us who already wondered how a legislator beholden to a corporation for his office can be truly expected to put the people first.
This week's congressional hearings only heighten the concern. Lawmakers are investigating the recent recalls over safety defects that have besmirched the reputation of the Toyota company. We are indebted to The Washington Post for publishing an analysis of legislators' financial ties to the automaker. It turns out, according to The Post, that of the 125 members of Congress on the committees investigating Toyota, over 40 percent have accepted campaign donations totaling $135,673 from the company in the last 10 years.
That's on top of a million dollars funneled to lawmakers by Toyota through state parties and PACs. Which is, in turn, on top of yet another million, just since 2008, donated by Toyota to nonprofit groups with, as The Post put it, "strong ties" to members of Congress.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but yours truly is not a guy who can — or would if he could — give millions to politicians. How can I be assured that, for all the posturing they do for the benefit of television cameras and reporters' notebooks, those politicians will have my interests at heart?
The answer is painfully obvious. I can't.
Here's the funny part: if I accepted money from Toyota, my employer would forbid me to write about it or, at the very least, require me to disclose the connection. If a judge accepted money from Toyota, she would be expected to recuse herself from any lawsuit to which the automaker was a party. If a police detective accepted money from Toyota, her lieutenant would remove her from any investigation in which the company was involved.
But the people who make the laws are financially entangled with this and other companies, and we act as if that has no bearing on their ability to be fair and impartial where those companies are concerned. It makes zero sense.
It also makes the case for public funding of all state and federal political campaigns. Get corporate money out of it once and for all. Require candidates to amass a threshold number of signatures, which then entitles them to campaign funds from the public treasury. Allow no one to opt out a la candidate Obama in 2008. While we're at it, end the gerrymandering that allows candidates and parties to choose their own voters and ensure reelection in perpetuity.
I've seldom met anyone, red state or blue, who didn't think doing these things would be a good idea. The fact that they are yet undone speaks to the seductiveness of corporate money and the corresponding unresponsiveness of our representatives to the people they supposedly represent.
So while I'm sure lawmakers will give us a good show in these hearings, I suspect it will come with a hidden wink and a smile. And that, at the end of the day, the concerns of we the people over the safety of these vehicles will be subordinate to those of the automaker that helps pay the bills. As I've said, I'm not a guy who can write the big checks.
I'm just a guy who drives a Toyota.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.