Citizens United

"Speech doesn't corrupt, money corrupts. And money isn't speech." Russ Feingold
"The US experiment in self-governing democracy died in 2010 with the most consequential Supreme Court ruling in US history: Citizen's United." Garikai Chengu
TV stations are hot commodities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision freeing up billions of Super PAC and dark money dollars that flow down by the billions to broadcast and cable operators each election cycle. So the bazaar never closes. recently reported that nearly 300 stations worth over $8 billion changed hands last year alone, up 367 percent in value from 2012. Just recently the FCC has approved major transactions involving Tribune, Sinclair, and Gannett. To make matters worse, companies have devised clever strategies to end-run the FCC’s ownership rules through arrangements that allow them to control stations they do not technically own. The [FCC] Commission needs to come down hard on these arrangements. Michael J. Copps 3/2014 CJR
The Supreme Court, by adopting an ahistorical and improperly narrow view of corruption, has shut down an exploration of the very real threat that unrestricted campaign spending actually posses to our democracy....corruption, broadly understood as placing private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root of what ails American democracy. (from David Cole's, New York Review of Books review of, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United: Zeyphyr Teachout.)

The Disgust Election (10/26/2014)

Senate to Vote On Amendment to Overturn Citizens United (7/2/2014)

Bernie Sanders Vs Citizens United (4/11/2014)

Reversing the Grievous Error of Citizen's United (2/4/2014)

Los Angeles joins more than 175 cities in national push for constitutional amendment (5/22/2013)

Connecticut Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United (9/12/2012)

Larry Lessig's Open Letter to Americans against Citizen's United.

Citizen's United needs to be reversed because "Campaign finance law underlies all other substantive law." Sign this petition or that petition.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has handed control of our elections and our government to giant corporations and the super-rich.

It will of course take some time to distill what occurred in the 2012 elections — and some things may well stay secret forever — but we already know quite a bit.

Of course, anyone who watches TV or listens to commercial radio in a battleground state knows from personal experience that things have gone awry. But it’s not that easy to get a bird’s-eye view of the overall electoral landscape.

Consider in combination these 10 observations on the current electoral scene. It’s worse than you may realize. But don’t be discouraged. Be motivated.

1. Record sums are being spent on the election.Bernie: End Citizens United

Spending on federal elections will exceed $6 billion, far more than any previous election, according to projections from the Center for Responsive Politics.

2. A torrent of outside money is flowing into the election, exceeding $1 billion.

Because of Citizens United, Super PACs and other outside groups are spending spectacular sums. Karl Rove’s Crossroads operations say they will spend $300 million. The Koch Brothers have said they will raise and give $400 million. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce aims to spend $100 million.

3. A very small number of super-rich and corporate donors are fueling the outside groups.

Led by casino magnate and billionaire-25-times-over Sheldon Adelson, the top 100 individual contributors account for almost three-quarters of all the money raised by Super PACs. There’s every reason to think an even smaller group is powering the outside groups that do not disclose their donors.

4. Dark money is casting a dark shadow over the election.

Groups organized as social welfare organizations or trade associations do not need to disclose the donors fueling their campaign-related spending. Corporations in particular are exploiting the opportunity for secrecy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce maintains a $200 million annual budget, and says it will spend $100 million on the 2012 elections. But in 2011, corporations that disclosed their contributions to the Chamber gave between $10 million and $12 million (some disclose ranges of donations only). Of that total, only $3.5 million were non-tax-deductible contributions that can be used for political spending — just a tiny fraction of the corporate money funneled through the Chamber for campaign spending.

5. Outside money is fueling nasty, negative attack ads on an unprecedented scale.

Virtually all of the outside money is going to attack ads. More than 90 percent of Rove’s Crossroads spending has been spent against candidates; all of the money by the Obama-supporting Priorities USA; more than 90 percent of the spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Outside groups are spending money on attack ads because they work. Candidates, however, are somewhat deterred from running attack ads, because voters may hold them accountable for the tone of their campaign. Outside groups aren’t accountable to anyone (except their handful of funders) and therefore aren’t deterred at all.

6. The post-Citizens United world is helping consolidate a financial oligarchy.Republicans Koch addiction

Of the roughly 50 individuals who have given $1 million or more to Super PACs, about a third come from the financial world. Overall, Wall Street and the financial sector are pouring far more money into the 2012 elections than any other industry; the industry has spent almost twice as much on the presidential race as any other.

Wall Street’s money is heavily Republican this year, but Wall Street is not inherently tied to the Republican Party. In 2008, the financial sector leaned significantly Democratic, with about 54 percent of its political donations going to Dems.

As important as where their money is going is how much the financial titans are spending. This reflects their shrill opposition to the modest Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, yes; but perhaps an even more important reason that the Big Finance guys are spending so much is that so much wealth is concentrated in the financial sector. Big Finance has been unreasonably enriched by the current system — at the very direct and visible expense of the rest of us — and now they are spending a tiny portion of their riches to lock in that system.

7. With all eyes on the presidential race, outside money is having a bigger impact on congressional elections.

With his hundreds of millions, Karl Rove can afford to spend to influence the presidential contest. But most of the outside groups are focusing their spending on congressional elections. In the contest for the Ohio Senate seat currently held by Sherrod Brown, for example, outside groups have spent more than $32 million. Outside groups have spent more than $10 million in a dozen senate races. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown at least $100,000 at 35 races.

8. Spending by outside groups is affecting state and local elections, including judicial races, across the country.

More than three-quarters of states elect judges or vote to retain them. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity to influence jurisprudence by spending big in state judicial elections. Outside interest spending is now increasingly common in state judicial elections. In North Carolina, R.J. Reynolds and other corporate interests have poured $800,000 into a state supreme court race.

Comparable sums are deluging other state and local races across the country. Example: the oil giant Chevron has spent $1.2 million on a local political committee to back three city council candidates in Richmond, California, where the company operates a large oil refinery plagued by safety violations.

9. Candidate-specific Super PACs are making a mockery of individual campaign donation limits and the notion that outside groups are independent of candidates.

An individual can donate a maximum of $5,000 to a candidate ($2,500 each for the primary and general election). Give to a candidate-specific Super PAC, however, and the sky is the limit. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have donated $20 million to the Romney-supporting Super PAC, Restore Our Future. And congressional candidate-specific Super PACs are prevalent: A recent Public Citizen report found that nearly 60 percent of the Super PACs active in the 2012 election are devoted to supporting or defeating a single candidate, many funded (and/or managed) by friends and allies of the candidate they support.

The Citizens United decision was explicitly premised on the idea that outside election spending was independent of candidates and therefore could not be corrupting — an implausible theory that cannot be reconciled with the prevalence of candidate-specific Super PACs with a limited pool of very high donors.

10. All this spending makes a huge difference.

It’s not the case that the candidate with the most money wins, but the spending certainly affects election outcomes. In 2010, we found (pdf) that outside groups backed the winning candidate in 60 of the 75 congressional races in which power changed hands. But the impact is even more profound than this kind of analysis suggests. The outside groups define the tone of the campaigns, often establish the terms of debate, and affect the entire national race in ways not easily quantified (for example, by forcing opponents to spend limited resources on races that otherwise would be safe). The need for candidates to raise extraordinary sums forces them to spend lots of time with the ultra-wealthy, and less time with regular people; it also makes them more accountable to donors and less to everyone else.

And, no matter who wins, the big money spenders obtain massively enhanced power to set the national policy agenda — including by taking popular measures off the table. As one House of Representatives staffer asked during a congressional briefing on the effects of the Citizens United decision, “How do I say ‘no’ to a deep-pocketed corporate lobbyist who now has all the resources necessary to defeat my boss in the next election?”

Free Speech For People

Things can’t continue like this.

If we care about our country, we simply can’t let this go on. We need to do some relatively small things — like force disclosure of the Dark Money flowing into the elections. We need to do some big things, too. We need public financing of our public elections. And we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore democracy to the people.

Over this past year, we’ve done important and remarkable work together. Disclosure remedies are now within reach. And we’ve made dramatic progress in the long effort to win a constitutional amendment.

Whatever happens on Election Day, it’s time to move to the next level. We’re going to expand and deepen the grassroots movement to reclaim our democracy, and put an end to the dominance of Big Money.

photograph of Robert WeissmanOnward,
Robert Weissman's signature
Robert Weissman
President, Public Citizen

P.S. A note on the data in this message: Our friends at the Center for Responsive Politics are the universally replied upon, go-to source for money-in-politics data. They do a great deal of analysis, and also provide much of the raw data upon which Public Citizen bases its own analyses.


Nation on the Take, How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy: Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman

2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp — On the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics: Kenneth P. Vogel

Dollarocracy, How the Money and Media Election Complex are Destroying America: John Nichols and Robert McChesney

Corporations Are Not People: Jeffrey D. Clements

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