America's New Goliath: Campaign Finance Reform

February 18, 2013
The 2012 election cycle will be regarded as the most expensive in history. With both presidential candidates spending upwards of $2 billion and campaign spending from the rest of country combining to approximately a whopping $3.8 billion, cumulative spending for the 2012 election cycle trumped the 2008 cycle’s spending by almost 10%. But besides being the most expensive in history, this election was special. For it was the first presidential cycle to occur after the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission.
This Supreme Court case is a landmark in the controversial area of campaign finance. Citizens United ruled that a 2002 piece of legislation known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and now allows corporation to donate unregulated and unlimited amounts of money to political action committees as corporations are now considered people. Proponents of this ruling declare that Citizens United simply serves to protect the free speech of these corporations whereas opponents rightly argue that the corporate influence that will be in politics moving forward will change and even mar the democratic process. It is essential to examine the benefits and more importantly the downsides of this ruling and what must be done to strengthen our electoral system.

First we must understand the laws that Citizens United replaced and the current legal climate of campaign finance. In 2002, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold came together to sponsor the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act. The initial purpose of the legislation was to reduce the amount of “soft money”, money from donations that were not subject to donation limits, and to stem the rise of “issue advocacy ads”, ads that name a federal candidate and attack or support their stance on a certain issue within a certain time before a primary or election. The bill gave a limit on funds that a national party committee could receive or solicit, mandated that anyone giving over $10,000 for the purpose of election ads must report the amount to the Federal Election Commission, and banned “broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibiting any such ad paid for by a corporation or paid for by an unincorporated entity using any corporate or union general treasury funds.” The act, was generally effective at limiting outside influence and issue advocacy ads, as a result campaigns stayed focused on receiving funds from individual people than from political action committees or special interest groups.

However with the Citizens United ruling, this all changed. Much of the McCain-Feingold Act was overruled. The Supreme Court ruled that bans on issue advocacy ads were unconstitutional. This unfortunately opened the door to what are known as SuperPACs, or “super political action committees”. These SuperPACs are now one of the strongest weapons in a politician’s arsenal. They are able to garner huge amounts of money from completely anonymous donors. Corporations are permitted to pour millions of dollars into SuperPACs that run advertising for their candidate or against their opponent.
In fact, in the 2012 federal election cycle, “…independent groups have spent at least $524 million on television advertisements and other efforts asking voters to elect or defeat candidates.” The large majority of this money comes from corporations and special interest groups. Although these SuperPACs can’t coordinate directly with the candidate’s campaign, many are run by former associates or advisers to the candidates thus essentially allowing for direct communication and orders. In the 2012 cycle, SuperPAC spending accounted for over a quarter of overall spending.
The effects of this are disastrous. According to a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, one in four Americans — 26% — say they are less likely to vote because big donors to super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans. Also, the corporate contributions it and of themselves breed corruption in the political process, and do so even more fervently when done without transparency.

In addition, 69% of respondents from the Brennan Center study agreed that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to super PACs will lead to corruption’.” Not only that, but these contributions are infringing upon the basic democratic ideal of equitable political influence by allowing those with the deeper wallets to leave a deeper mark on our political process.
In fact, a point of contention in the 2012 cycle was the fact that many of the advertisements financed by Super PACs were blatantly false and designed to rile up people to vote, but for the wrong reasons. Most famous of these was the Romney Jeep Ad that stipulated that as a result of President Obama’s economic policies, the car company Jeep that had many factories in the battleground state of Ohio, would be pulling its factories from Ohio and moving them to China. In response, Chrysler’s CEO wrote, “I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China…” Unfortunately, many lies like the Jeep Ad were pervaded through the airways from both candidates leading to a large amount of misinformation.

Of this rampant misinformation, professor of Economics at George Mason University Bryan Caplan said “If one person pollutes the air, we barely notice; but if millions of people pollute the air, life can be very unpleasant indeed. Similarly, if one person holds irrational views about immigration, we barely notice; but if millions of people share these irrational views, socially harmful policies prevail by popular demand.”
Yet for all these disadvantages, supporters of the ruling argue that the court is mandating that associations of individuals cannot be denied free speech rights because of their potential influence or who they are. Chief Justice John Roberts, voting in favor of the ruling, wrote that “The First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.”, essentially stating that freedom of speech is more important the democratic process.

As important as it is to preserve to the value of free speech for groups such as corporation, we must also remember that we need to make each speech equitable with each other’s. Meaning that we cannot allow few to have a monopoly on free speech due to their resources. Though Citizens United did grant better free speech rights to corporations, it also served to drown out the voices of those who aren’t part of corporations.

Think about it logically, if an average working man donates $100 to a political party, that’s quite a bit of money to him. On the other hand, for a multinational corporation to donate $100 hardly affects it at all. In fact, the corporation can afford to spend much more than $100, considering that 89 percent of Super PAC donations were over $100,000, meaning that the free speech of the company is at least 1000 times stronger than the free speech of the man.

This example is quite commonplace and represents the problem that Citizens United brings up. The voices of individual Americans are being drowned out and their political influence curtailed, thus marring the democratic process. The course of action to take is clear, if we are to maintain a strong democratic process, we must take action to repeal Citizens United and forge a campaign finance system that has much less influence from outside groups.

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