CITIZENS UNITED ACTION (Part 2)

Here’s issue #29 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 5/9/12. It continues from the previous issue the arguments supporting local resolutions calling for the overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

With the 2012 election season underway, the consequences of the Citizens United decision are becoming clear. The unlimited, super political action committee or “Super PAC” spending has already exceeded $100 million. Ninety percent of this money is coming from roughly 500 wealthy individuals or corporations, meaning that they are largely drowning out the voices of the other 300 million people in the US. The Super PACs are out-spending the candidates’ campaigns. This is a real concern because it means that the campaign is out of the control of the candidates and that it is very difficult to hold this spending to any standard of accountability, for example for the accuracy of their campaign ads. The majority of this spending, 86% according to one tabulation, [1] is negative, i.e., targeting an opponent. Negative advertising demeans candidates and our political process. It turns voters off, which, along with the growing voter perception that the huge amounts of money in the campaigns mean that their vote doesn’t matter and that the system is corrupt, reduces voter turnout. [2] Moreover, the amount spent to date is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that these Super PACs have stated they will raise and spend during the 2012 election period.

Corporate spending is the big concern because corporations have far greater resources than all other sources combined. Even before Citizens United, 72% ($3.4 billion) of all federal campaign contributions in 2007 – 2010 came from the business sector (individuals and organizations), with labor contributing 4% ($172 million), ideological groups 7% ($308 million), and others 17%. In addition, corporations exert substantial influence in other ways, such as lobbying ($3.3 billion in 2011) and the revolving door (e.g., Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury and his 3 chiefs of staff all came from the financial industry, which has gotten very favorable treatment in the wake of the financial collapse and recession it caused).

Some people argue that unions provide a counter-balance to corporate spending, but past spending and a comparison of overall resources indicate otherwise. Furthermore, union membership in the private sector has dropped from 34% in the 1950s to under 7% today. Clearly, the corporations are winning this battle.

With unlimited corporate funds now unleashed, we can expect even greater business sector dominance. The Citizens United decision dramatically expands potential spending and, therefore, concerns that elected officials will be more responsive to contributors and their money than to constituents. The 15 largest corporations in the US have annual revenues of $2 trillion and annual profits of $146 billion. If just these 15 spent only 1% of their annual profits on campaigns, they would spend more than twice what the Obama and McCain campaigns combined spent in the last presidential election.

Citizens all across the country are concerned that unlimited campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals will mean that our elections won’t be a fair fight. 79% of the public supports a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United, including over 2/3 of Republicans and over 80% of Democrats and Independents. Over 1,000 business leaders formally support overturning Citizens United and there has been unusual criticism from state and other federal judges. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the state’s 1912 law limiting corporate spending in campaigns, despite a lower court ruling that Citizens United had invalidated the law in question. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals similarly upheld aNew York City law that places limits on political contributions.

With unlimited corporate campaign spending unleashed, government of, by, and for the people is truly at risk. If, as the Citizens United decision asserts, money equals speech, then those with no money have no voice. This flies in the face of the principles of our democracy and the Constitution that our founders wrote. It is essential that citizens everywhere make their voices heard loudly and clearly to build the incredible momentum that will be necessary to overturn the Citizens United decision.


[1]       Fowler, E., 5/2/12, “Presidential Ads 70% Negative in 2012, Up from 9% in 2008,” http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/2012/05/02/jump-in-negativity.

[2]      Kroll, A., 4/24/12, “Poll: Super-PACs will hurt voter turnout in 2012,” Mother Jones

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