The Problem

Corporations were already spending considerable amounts in our elections, but the decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case now gives corporations unmatched influence and ability to spend on elections.  The decision represents nothing less than the radical departure from the political culture of this nation.

On JANUARY 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed a flood of corporate money into our political system by announcing, contrary to long-standing precedents, that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or defeat candidates. The decision in this historic case - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission - overturns a century of campaign finance law.

The court overruled two existing Supreme Court decisions. In Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court held that the government can limit for-profit corporations to the use of PACs to fund express electoral advocacy. McConnell v. FEC applied that principle to uphold the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on “electioneering communications,” that is, corporate funding of election-eve broadcasts that mention candidates and convey unmistakable electoral messages. Striking down these decisions unleashes unlimited corporate and union spending in candidate campaigns, and dooms the 1907 Tillman Act, which also prohibits corporate contributions to candidates.

Reversing the well-established laws and judicial precedents barring direct corporate and union financing of elections is a radical affront to American political culture and poses grave dangers to the integrity of our democracy.

How Much New Corporate Money in Elections Might We See? 

It is impossible to predict how much corporate and union money will flood into our elections in an unregulated system, but it is reasonable to assume it would be very substantial indeed-and possibly overwhelming in selected races of particular interest to the business or labor communities.

Special interest groups primarily funded by corporate money spent conservatively about $50 million on TV ads promoting or attacking federal candidates just in the last two months of the 2000 election, up from $11 million just two years earlier. Corporations and unions chipped in another $500 million in “soft money” contributions in each of the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, due to a loophole in federal election law.

These loopholes were largely closed with passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which added two powerful pillars to the campaign finance law: first, broadcast ads that mention a candidate, target the candidate’s voting constituency and air within 60 days of a general election cannot be paid for by corporate or union funds; and second, soft money contributions to parties and federal candidates are prohibited.

Although the McCain-Feingold law was upheld almost in its entirety by the Rehnquist Court in its 2003 decision, McConnell v. FEC, today’s Roberts Court began to whittle away at the law in its 2007 decision, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. The new loophole caused by the Roberts Court immediately resulted in another $100 million in corporate spending on TV electioneering ads in the last two months of the 2008 election.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Corporations have long shown a willingness to spend and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars each election through loopholes in the law. Now that the Court has invalidated restrictions on corporate political spending, expect a flood of new money into the 2010 congressional campaigns, state candidate campaigns, judicial elections, and the 2012 presidential election.

The scope of the damage to the nation’s political and economic well-being by an adverse ruling by the Court can be mitigated in part by a comprehensive public financing program that provides candidates with new money to respond to corporate political expenditures, and by reasonable constraints on how those corporate CEOs may spend other people’s money in politics.

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