Opinion: Citizens United Didn't Cause the Problem, Just Made it a Whole Lot Worse

The logo for Steven Colbert's super PAC, Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

In the 2008 election the candidates for president raised more than $1 billion. When we add the cost of congressional races the total campaign fundraising comes to $5 billion.

Much if this money went to “independent expenditure” groups, not to the candidates' campaigns, and not to the political parties. These independent expenditure organizations were supposedly run without the cooperation or coordination of the candidates' campaigns.

This means candidates do not say, “I approved this message.” Instead, they aver, “Well, I have nothing to do with what they are saying about my opponent. It’s too bad that the campaigns are going so negative, but I can’t control what those independent groups are saying.”

Why is so much money going to these loose cannon groups instead of the political parties who would be held responsible for inaccurate and excessively brutal political advertising?

Blame it on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as McCain-Feingold.

This law basically set a narrow limit on how much political parties could solicit and use to support their candidates. It established a federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties in races for federal office. That new law was a squeeze on the money balloon which resulted in it popping out the sides, diverting money to the much less controllable and accountable political action committees and independent groups.

Then came the January 21, 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

The case struck down provisions of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications." President Obama said at the time that the ruling "will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or, worse, by foreign entities."

Most notoriously, this case affirmed that corporations (including labor unions) have personhood, rights and responsibilities similar to those of a “natural” person. This ruling extended the First Amendment right to freedom of speech to these entities. The case also made it easier for contributions to be kept secret, making it harder to ascertain who’s giving money to what.

Citizens United is the bogeyman that supposedly unleashed the current avalanche and the horror of secret and huge political campaign contributions. So is 2012 a paradigm shift in big money in politics? Is money now twisting our democratic process out of shape more than ever before? Or is it just a major incremental shift in what has been going on for many elections?

I'd say the latter. In reality, this year’s elections are projected to cost $6 billion, only $1 billion more than the 2008 elections.

We have actually never been able to implement campaign finance reform with any teeth, because:

  • The politicians don't want to cut off their umbilical cord.
  • The powerful interest groups, unions, corporations, and others don’t want to cut off their ability to “buy” politicians or secure access.
  • The voters don’t care and campaign finance reform is nowhere in the list of things voters get excited about.
  • The political parties can’t agree on compressed and less expensive campaign seasons.

As a consequence of the constantly evolving campaign finance environment, no politician can easily sit by the sidelines and ignore the power of big money, especially in the form of SuperPACs. As Roxanne Conlin found out in her ill-fated 2010 bid for an Iowa Senate seat against six-term incumbent Chuck Grassley, swearing off big money doesn’t get you many votes. Even Barack Obama has had to reverse himself and is now “reluctantly blessing” supporters to pump up Priorities USA Action, his Super PAC. We now have a new term for not taking big gulps of this money; according to the Democrats, it would constitute “unilateral disarmament.”

I think we all agree that the 2012 secret election money avalanche has a terribly negative impact on how we conduct our primaries, caucuses, and going forward, the general election.

I predict that 2016 will be worse.