Campaign Cash: How Citizens United Will Change Elections Forever
Undue corporate influence over U.S. elections has been a serious problem in American politics for decades, but this year's Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission made things worse. Worst of all, we may never know the extent of the damage.
Citizens United freed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money backing specific political candidates, and without congressional action, those expenditures can be completely anonymous. Major corporations are already capitalizing on the new legal landscape by the millions, and the public doesn’t really know who is buying what influence or why.
That's why The Media Consortium will be carefully watching the effects of this ruling in the run up to this year's midterm elections. Every day through Nov. 4, we'll bring you some of the best independent reporting on the effects of corporate spending in an attempt to measure just how widespread the effect of Citizens United will be on this—and the next—election. Keep your eye on "Campaign Cash" as we follow this issue in the coming weeks. If you want to tweet about it, use the hashtag #campaigncash.
The impact of Citizens United
As Harvard University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig explains in an interview with The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, the Citizens United v. FEC decision represents one of many ways that corporations buy political favors.
Prior to the ruling, companies couldn’t spend money to directly advocate the election of a particular political candidate during election season. They could form Political Action Committees (PACs) to support or attack specific candidates, but those PACs had to be funded by individuals who worked for the company and couldn't be funded from the corporation's treasury directly. The executives of Goldman Sachs, for instance, could band together to form GoldmanPAC and spend their money on whatever candidates they wished—and many corporate employees exercised that right and spent freely on elections through their corporate PACs.
Now corporations can spend as much as they want and actual corporate funds—not just organized individuals—can also be deployed, making massive amounts of corporate cash eligible for political purchasing.
But the scariest part of Citizens United, as Lessig emphasizes, is the money that isn't spent. That is, if a firm makes it known that they are willing spend millions of dollars to fight any politician who opposes them on a particular policy issue, representatives and senators might begin changing their voting behavior in Congress before the company actually has to put up the cash.
And ultimately, Citizens United didn’t just legalize unlimited corporate expenses on elections. It also allows those expenses to be anonymous. If companies launder their political cash through a front group, that third-party spender doesn’t have to disclose who its donors are.
This isn't your local Chamber of Commerce
As Harry Hanbury details for GRITtv, this laundering scheme is essentially the business model for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-- a lobbying powerhouse in the nation's capital. Don’t be fooled by its name—the U.S. Chamber has almost nothing to do with the local small business coalitions who help strengthen local economies.
As Hanbury notes, 40 percent of the U.S. Chamber’s 2008 funding came from just 26 corporations. The group represents many of the nation’s largest and most irresponsible corporations, from those responsible for the financial meltdown on Wall Street to BP, the company that spilled millions of barrels worth of oil in the Gulf this summer. The Chamber's branding allows them to disguise their political as a coalition of local businesses while it does dirty work for corporate titans.