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David Brodwin: The business case for fair elections

This year, the United States Supreme Court reversed years of precedent limiting how corporations may spend money to influence elections. This decision will substantially increase the importance of corporate influence in politics—both in determining who gets elected and how they decide once they are in office.

As executives, owners, investors, and business professionals involved in sustainable and socially responsible business, we must ask ourselves: Are we helped by this greater freedom to spend our companies’ money to influence campaigns? Or has the Supreme Court handed out some poisoned candy? Is this new ability to buy political support good for business—or does it set us back in our efforts to do business responsibly and promote a vibrant, just, and sustainable economy?

Despite appearances, the gutting of campaign finance rules is more likely to hurt than to help. The main issue is not whether businesses can or cannot spend their money on elections. The main issue is which particular businesses and industries will dominate the spending, and whether the ideas they will promote are good for our businesses and good for the nation.

Unfortunately, opening the floodgates to corporate spending on elections will make it harder, not easier, for sustainable and socially responsible businesses to get what they need-and harder for America to get what it needs from these businesses.

That’s because the money that will flood the political system will not represent the views of companies in green America. Instead, the money that will flood the system will come from organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is expected to spend more than $200 million this year on lobbying and direct campaign expenditures. This organization and others like it represent companies that don’t value responsible business. Is this the kind of business thinking that we want to dominate our political discourse?

Ask yourself: Which type of business represents the future? Which type of business should speak most loudly in the political debate? We cannot build an economy of the future based on outmoded ideas and values.

As executives, owners, and investors in socially responsible and sustainable businesses, we believe there is a right way and a wrong way to do business. We do not pursue growth at any cost, nor profit without regard to people and planet. We seek economic policies that make it easier and more profitable to do business the right way, and we know that these policies will make it harder and less profitable to do business the wrong way.

Another important business value is transparency. Corporate donations should be fully disclosed. It’s not healthy to force legislators to collect secret donations, for which they then owe secret favors. This “pay to play” system destroys American’s faith in government and can destroy our democracy.

The ranks of sustainable and socially responsible businesses are growing rapidly–but we are still outnumbered by the “business as usual” crowd. Unless we act, corporate money of the wrong kind will swamp campaigns. This money will not represent enlightened business leadership. It will not enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Many important initiatives such as reforms that support Main Street over Wall Street, health care and insurance reforms, product safety standards, better public education, and renewable energy advances will all be in jeopardy if we do not improve the election finance system.

So what’s the solution? Congress has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act to neutralize the corrupting influence of special interest donations and make it possible for legislators to focus on the people’s business rather than on fundraising. This bi-partisan measure has been approved in Committee and now awaits passage by the full House of Representatives.

The proposal has been carefully crafted to survive constitutional challenge at the Supreme Court. It does not bar private funding of campaigns, but it provides the option for candidates to run for Congress using a blend of small private donations and limited public funds, including a four-to-one federal match on donations of $100 or less. Candidates could finance a viable campaign based primarily on contributions from their local grassroots base of supporters. Candidates would not need to depend on special interests who expect to obtain influence in exchange for cash.

We can’t build an economy that works if our democracy is broken. Congress needs to pass this vital reform.

Campaign finance reform is a crucial step toward building an economy that supports and rewards responsible and sustainable business. This is essential if we are to create the economy we want and need today, and be proud of what we’re leaving for the generations to come.

David Brodwin is co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, a national coalition of business networks that advocates for a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.