MONEY IN OUR ELECTIONS (Part 3): THE CITIZENS UNITED DECISION

Here’s issue #15 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 1/15/12. Having examined campaign fundraising amounts and sources in the previous two issues, now I’ll look at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The previous two issues documented the large amounts of money spent on political campaigns and that a small number of very wealthy individuals give huge amounts of money to candidates and to our political parties. They also noted that the amounts of money are growing fairly rapidly. This trend is going to continue in the 2012 election cycle and is expected to accelerate, in large part because of a US Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

In the 5 to 4 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court held that corporations (and also unions), which are often treated as “persons” under the law, have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Furthermore, it ruled that this right to freedom of speech means that these “persons” can spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates for elected office. [1] [2]

This decision overturned key, and in some cases longstanding, campaign finance laws, rules, and precedents. It did not overturn the prohibition on direct contributions by corporations to candidates, but allowed unlimited contributions to political action committees (PACs) that are supposedly independent of and not coordinated with the candidate and his or her campaign. I say “supposedly” independent because these PACs are often run by former close associates or campaign staff of the candidate, or in other ways have connections to the candidate or his or her campaign. In addition, a candidate’s strategy is often well known and can be amplified by these PACs.

These PACs currently have no requirement to disclose their contributors, meaning we, the public, won’t know who is behind the messages the PACs put forth and whether the contributors present potential conflicts of interest for the candidate. Even if these PACs operate independently of candidates and their campaigns, it is unrealistic to believe that candidates won’t know and reward the contributors to PACs that support their campaigns. [3]  Clearly, this will result in elected officials who are less accountable to their constituents and more responsive to contributors.

As a result of Citizens United, we have PACs and their sponsors stating that they will raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars during the 2012 elections. Already, in the Republican primary race, PACs have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising, most of it negative and some quite nasty and untruthful, supposedly independently of the candidates’ campaigns. [4]  This “free speech,” bought with large amounts of special interest money, is drowning out the voices and interests of the public; it represents a real threat to our democracy.

A large number of groups has formed a coalition to work to overturn the Citizens United decision. An effort to hold protest rallies at every federal courthouse in the country on January 20, the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, is being spearheaded by Move to Amend (www.movetoamend.org). In Boston, there will be a protest rally at the Moakley Courthouse on Friday, 1/20, from 12:30 – 1:30 and a Summit on Citizens United and the efforts to overturn it on Friday afternoon and evening and all day Saturday (http://wiki.occupyboston.org/wiki/The_Rally_and_Summit_to_Unite_Citizens_for_Democracy).


[1]       It should be noted that the Supreme Court went out of its way to make this broad, precedent setting decision when the case before it was much narrower. This will be a topic for a future issue of this newsletter.

[2]       Nader, R., 7/18/11, “The Corporate Supreme Court,” CommonDreams.org

[3]       Hohenstein, K., Summer 2011, “Said the Pot to the Kettle: Citizens United and the Power of Corporate Speech,” Justice Rising, vol. 5, #2,Alliance for Democracy

[4]       Scharwath, K., 12/16/11, “The Fight to End Corporate Personhood Heats Up,” TriplePundit

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