Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Citizens United

Last year, in the case Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission established a precedent where corporations could contribute an unlimited amount of funds to political campaigns. Not only did this validate the position that corporations were people, but it also has had far reaching effects as now corporations have even greater influence at the expense of voters.

Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission began in January 2008 when a non profit group called Citizens United released a documentary entitled Hillary: The Movie which posed the question of whether or not Hillary Clinton was fit to be President of the United States. The movie was released in theaters and on DVD, but when the group wanted to release it on video-on demand and planned on using its general treasury funds, this became a problem. Federal law (in this case Section 203 of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) prohibited corporations and unions from “using their general treasury funds to fund ‘electioneering communications’ in the 30 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election,” with electioneering communications being defined as “broadcast advertisements that clearly identify a candidate for federal office and target a significant portion of the relevant electorate.” [1]

In order to get past this, Citizens United filed an injunction in December 2007 against the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in a federal district court, arguing that Hillary: The Movie could not be classified as an electioneering communication. The district court ruled against Citizens United and granted judgement to the FEC. Citizens United also argued that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s disclaimer and disclosure requirements were unconstitutional as applied to Hillary: The Movie
and its advertisement promotions. The reform act stated certain guidelines for advertisement promotions that were not funded by candidates who were running for office.

[The ads] must include a clear, readable disclaimer displayed on the screen for at least four seconds. The disclaimer must identify the person or organization responsible for the advertisement, that person or organization's address or website, and a statement that the advertisement “is not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee” [2]

However, the district court once again ruled against Citizens United and granted judgement to the FEC. When this occurred, Citizens United appealed to the Supreme Court.

After hearing arguments in March 2009, the court ordered a reargument for September 2009, which asked Citizens United and the FEC if it should overrule two prior campaign finance cases, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Comm'n. The Austin case established that “political speech may be banned based on the speaker's corporate identity” and the McConnell case “upheld a facial challenge to limits on electioneering communications.” [3] (A facial challenge is when one claims that a law is completely unconstitutional.)

The final verdict of the Supreme Court was that they overruled the Austin case, thus eliminating the limit on the amount of money a corporation could give to a political campaign. They also partially struck down the McConnell case, holding that the “‘government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.’” [4]

What this essentially did was equate donating money to a political campaign with free speech. Corporations already had major influence in elections via interest groups, lobbying, and the revolving door. By allowing corporations to give political campaigns as much funding as they see fit, the Supreme Court has allowed corporations to now have near-total influence over elections, making the votes of citizens matter even less.

The most recent effects of Citizens United can be seen in the formation of super political action committees (PACs). which are “committees that, thanks to the court decisions, can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups.” While they can’t donate directly to candidates, they are able to “promote them and attack their opponents, so long as they don’t coordinate with any candidate or political party.” [5] A major problem with super PACs is that while they are legally required to disclose their donors, due to time lags in reporting, months may stretch by before donors are revealed. Also, loopholes can “allow donors to stay hidden, such as when money comes from a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose how it’s funded.” [6] This will allow for groups to raise millions of dollars and then either disclose the donors months after the fact or not at all. In addition, it allows for corporations and groups to avoid blowback when support controversial causes, as well as make a corporate-funded effort appear to be a populist movement.

It also authorizes tax-exempt charities, who are legally not allowed to involve themselves in political campaigns, to support political campaigns as long as their primary reason for doing so isn’t political in nature. The best known of these groups is the Tea Party-allied Americans For Prosperity, a tax-exempt charity that was co-founded by billionaire David Koch.

If this is bad, things get worse when one combines the two. If a super PAC and a tax-exempt charity are created then corporations and individuals can “donate as much as they want to the nonprofit, which isn’t required to publicly disclose funders” and the “nonprofit could then donate as much as it wanted to the Super-PAC, which lists the nonprofit’s donation but not the original contributors.” [7] This situation is not hypothetical as “Karl Rove set up this model with the Super-PAC American Crossroads and the nonprofit Crossroads GPS. While some Democrats complain about the influence of so-called “dark money,” others have started to follow in his footsteps.” [8]

Both Republicans and Democrats, by fully embracing super PACs, are showing that they do not care about the country or their constituents and even less about democracy. They have shown their true colors: that they are happy to be nothing but pawns in turning America into a corptocracy.


3: Ibid
4: Ibid
6: Ibid
7: Ibid
8: Ibid

No comments: