This past Tuesday was the four-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. This monumental decision, decided in a divided 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court, decided that the federal government couldn’t ban political spending by corporations or labor unions in candidate elections. The majority, including among them Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., agreed upon one of the basic principles of the first amendment: that government has no role regulating political speech. The four justices in dissent feared that the influence of corporate money in campaign advertisement will corrupt democracy.
This historic Supreme Court ruling overturned two precedents from earlier cases regarding campaign finance reform and regulation. The first was the 1990 Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce decision that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates. The issue was revisited over a decade later in the 2003 case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, resulting in a decision that upheld a part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions.
Whether or not we think corporations have a right to unlimited spending in candidate elections, looking back on this ruling four years since it was handed down makes us realize that corporations have taken advantage of their new privileges and have made their voices heard. The way campaigns are funded has been changed forever by this ruling, placing control over how candidates are advertised into the hands of those with the most corporate power and money. This change has produced the super PAC (political action committee), which is a type of organization that collects campaign contributions from its own members and donates that money to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation.
The ruling of the Citizens United case opened the way for formation of these super PACs, ultimately allowing wealthy individuals to spend whatever amount they desired on the advertisement of a certain candidate or bill that advocated or supported an issue they agreed with. The effect of super PACs on the spending of political campaigns has been huge, especially in the general election of 2012. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top-1 percent of super Pac donors accounted for 68 percent of all contributions made to super PACs in the 2012 election. Millionaires and billionaires are heavily investing in their political endeavors through the lax finance regulation created by this ruling, buying politicians who support their interests over the interests of the larger constituency.
Independent spending in recent elections has soared as a result of the change in campaign finance reform from this Supreme Court decision. In the 2012 election, Senate races in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Indiana, along with six House races in Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, had independent corporations and nonprofits outspend both the candidate’s campaign and party. Not only that, but much of this kind of outside spending occurs with almost no donor disclosure. The Citizens United ruling allows nonprofits to spend as much as they want on independent campaign activity as long as they agree to the ruling’s lax tax laws, laws that do not require the disclosure of nonprofit donors. This ruling has unleashed major change in campaign finance and it’s turning out to be for the worst.
This new set of rules regarding corporate spending on candidate elections has changed the game of campaign finance. Both Democrats and Republicans are using these new regulations to their own political benefit while their constituents’ voice grows smaller and smaller. This new practice of corporate spending in politics does not seem to be something that is truly democratic. For those individuals with specific beliefs and fat pockets, any politician that advocates for their personal interests is as good as any to support in the next election regardless of whether that wealthy donor even lives in the same state as the candidate.
A ruling so controversial and with such drastic consequences even brings up the debate as to the effectiveness of our Supreme Court. The nine justices that make up the bench are nominated by US Presidents and confirmed by the Senate to serve a life term upholding and defending the constitution. Yet in many recent Supreme Court decisions, it seems as if the nomination process produces more loyalty to the party of the President who nominated them than loyalty to our most sacred documents and ideals. It’s rulings like these that remind us of the probability that the only unbiased branch of our federal government may follow an agenda after all.
The cases that make their way to the Supreme Court are of the utmost importance to the lives and rights of American citizens, with the rulings affecting our system of government and way of life more than we ever really know. The Citizens United ruling and the world of campaign finance may seem like boring topics of conversation, but its effects on America’s electoral democracy are enormous and obvious even just four years after the ruling. With the selection process of the Supreme Court seemingly set in stone, it is hard to fathom any major change to the often-biased decisions the nine justices agree upon. One definite thing is that the American public and the effectiveness of our government will continue to suffer from controversial rulings made on behalf of the small group of individuals who have the biggest checkbooks.