Citizens United Fuels Movement for Overhaul

(Photo: AP/CQ Roll Call/Bill Clark)

A protester holds a sign at a rally in front of the Supreme Court in 2012 to mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision.

Progressive activists tend to cast the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, handed down six years ago today, as a historically destructive decision ushering in an era of corruption and even oligarchy.

In a statement typical of many condemning Citizens United on its sixth anniversary, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer called it “one of the worst and most damaging decisions in the Court’s history.”

But for advocates of campaign-finance restrictions, the high court’s 2010 decision to reverse longtime curbs on independent corporate and union spending may turn out to be something of a political gift. The ruling has given voters fed up with the political system a concrete focus for their anger, and helped push the issue of money in politics from the margins to the mainstream. The surging popular concern over political money has set the table for a serious discussion of what’s wrong with the system and how it can be fixed.

The ruling’s effect, of course, has in no way resembled what the Supreme Court majority anticipated. The Court’s rationale for lifting limits on independent political spending was that money spent without the involvement of candidates and political parties could not be corrupting. In the real world of campaigns, however, the supposed firewall between super PACs and the candidates they back has all but evaporated.

The Supreme Court’s assumption that transparency and disclosure would keep the system honest likewise proved patently naïve. In upholding the constitutionality of existing disclosure rules, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

But last November, Kennedy came right out and told Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow in an interview that “disclosure is not working the way it should.” Indeed, undisclosed political spending is expected to well exceed the $300 million record set in the 2012 elections, thanks largely to the increasingly brazen entry into politics by tax-exempt “social welfare” groups that are not required to disclose their donors. Such groups are required by law to spend most of their money on the public good, but the Internal Revenue Service has turned out to be completely ineffectual at compelling these groups to scale back their political spending.

As big spending has soared, billionaire political donors have played an ever-larger role in the bankrolling of elections. Industrialists Charles and David Koch, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and environmentalist and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer are just a few of the mega-donors who have become household names. As the super-rich pump money into super PACs, “social welfare” organizations and other big spending groups, good government advocates wail that the voices of and concerns of average Americans are being drowned out.

While dire warnings about the distorting power of moneyed interests are not misplaced, what’s missing from this narrative is the substantial public pushback now under way. A full 84 percent responded in a New York Times/CBS News poll that there is too much money in politics, and 85 percent said the system should be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt.

And voters are not just complaining; they are taking action. In Maine and Seattle last year, voters approved ballot initiatives to match small campaign donations with public funds, and similar proposals are pending in other parts of the country. Some Republicans have joined in calls for campaign-finance reform, in part reflecting the anger of Tea Party activists at so-called crony capitalism, and at the big money that many right-leaning activists associate with the GOP establishment.

As Nick Penniman, head of the bipartisan reform group Issue One, told the Prospect this week, the 2016 elections elections will spotlight such extreme campaign-finance excesses that Americans will wake up with a huge hangover that can’t be ignored. “Everyone is going to be disgusted,” Penniman predicted. “That’s a good thing because step one is having that bottoming-out experience and admitting there’s a problem. We firmly believe that in the wake of 2016, it will be impossible to deny the severity of the problem.”

It’s Citizens United that got us here. But it’s also Citizens United that is driving voters—and politicians—to the point where it will be impossible to avoid action. Until now, much of the public anger at Citizens United has found its outlet in a popular movement to amend the Constitution to reverse that ruling. While such efforts may prove quixotic, they have bolstered pro-reform progressive groups, and helped popularize the issue of campaign financing. Dire predictions notwithstanding, our political system is not an oligarchy—yet. The nation remains a democracy. As such, it’s only a matter of time before voters angry about Citizens United force politicians to pay attention.

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