Citizens United and the 2012 election

We thought the Congressional elections in 2010 were heavily influenced by PACs after the Supreme Court Citizens United decision but we actually did not get the full impact.  While the case was decided with various concurrences and dissents in part,  it upheld the right of corporations to have free political speech.  Because, as Mitt Romney can tell you, “corporations are people, too.”  So now we are reaping what the Supreme Court sowed.  Secret money is flowing to Super PAC’s and influencing the Republican primary.  And anyone who says that it is OK because unions have the same rights is mad.  Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, just dropped $5 million to shore up a pro-Gingrich PAC.  No union I know could do that.  New York Times published this account on the 9th

But on Friday, the cavalry arrived: a $5 million check from Mr. Adelson to Winning Our Future, a “super PAC” that supports Mr. Gingrich. By Monday morning, the group had reserved more than $3.4 million in advertising time in South Carolina, a huge sum in a state where the airwaves come cheap and the primary is 11 days away. The group is planning to air portions of a movie critical of Mr. Romney’s time at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he helped found.

The last-minute injection underscores how the 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance has made it possible for a wealthy individual to influence an election. Mr. Adelson’s contribution to the super PAC is 1,000 times the $5,000 he could legally give directly to Mr. Gingrich’s campaign this year.

And Mr. Adelson is not the only one.  Most contributors are hidden.

So what can we do about this?  Martha Coakley, Masschusetts Attorney General  writes in the Huffington Post that we need a Constitutional amendment to make it clear that corporations are not people.

There is a national movement afoot to amend the Constitution to make clear that the First Amendment applies only to people and not corporations. Several proposed amendments have been introduced in Congress, including the so-called “People’s Rights Amendment” introduced by Congressman James P. McGovern with bipartisan support. Further, at least 10 states, including Massachusetts, have introduced resolutions calling on Congress to pass one of these proposed amendments.

I was proud to join with 25 other state Attorneys General during the Citizens case in filing a brief urging the Supreme Court to leave the states’ ability to regulate and restrict corporate political spending intact. And I am proud to be the first state Attorney General to call for passage of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens decision.

But Constitutional amendments take time and the outcome of an effort is never certain.  I remember working for the Equal Rights Amendment which finally failed.  The ideal may be that states should be allowed to make their own regs for their states.  Montana is already headed in that direction with the recent Montana Supreme Court ruling that Citizen’s United does not apply to Montana campaign finance laws.

Last Friday [December 30, 2011], the Montana Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 1912 voter initiative – the Corrupt Practices Act – that prohibits corporations from making contributions to or expenditures on behalf of state political candidates and political parties. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that a similar federal prohibition was unconstitutional, prompting a wave of bills and court rulings that erased prohibitions on corporate and union political expenditures around the country.

“For over 100 years, Montana has had an electoral system that preserves the integrity of the political process, encourages full participation and safeguards against corruption,” state Attorney General Steve Bullock said in a statement after the ruling, adding, “the [Montana] Supreme Court’s decision upholds that system and is truly a victory for all Montanans.”

 Montana Supreme Court

Of course it will be appealed.

Besides state by state fights and the long road to a Constitutional amendment, President Obama could issue an Executive Order.  He could direct that any company that gets any federal money has to disclose its political contributions.  Remember that corporations are people.  People who give money have to say they are citizens and who employs them.  It makes sense that corporations have to make some disclosures also.  Steven Rosenfeld writing in AlterNet thinks this is a possibility.

“It’s simple—any company that is paid with taxpayer dollars should be required to disclose political contributions,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who has pushed for the White House to issue the order. “With public dollars come public responsibilities, and I hope President Obama will issue his executive order right away.”

The order, if issued, would likely be the only campaign finance initiative to emerge from Washington this year as nothing is expected from Congress. It would take effect after the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council adopts new disclosure rules. That could come as the 2012 election season moves beyond the primaries and it would offer a new way to see who is behind the newest independent groups spending millions on political attack ads.

Spending on federal contracts was $541 billion in 2010, which was about 4 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Congressional Research Service, and almost 15 percent of the federal budget. The top 100 contractors are some of America’s biggest firms, and include support services for the military overseas, weapons makers, computer companies, telecommunication firms and other service providers. Companies that could fall under the disclosure order employ about 22 percent of the domestic workforce, CRS said. 

When the possibility of an executive order was last floated, Congressional Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce rose up in arms.  Maybe now that they see the distortion money is causing in the Republican primaries, the Congressional Republicans, at least, will change their tune.  Given the growing awareness of Super PAC’s through the sheer volume of advertising being unleashed in South Carolina, the average citizen may well decide to support measures to mitigated their influence.

One thought on “Citizens United and the 2012 election

  1. Pingback: Colbert, Stewart, and Super PACS « FortLeft

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