They Broke It — They Bought It — We’ll Fight It

How the Citizens United Ruling Five Years Ago Is Essential to Understanding (and Fighting) the Destroy-Everything Congress

Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations spending as much money as they want to tilt elections toward candidates who will do their bidding is not corruption, but “free speech,” it’s important to see how this disastrous decision was a turning point in U.S. politics.

The replacement of the “do-nothing” 113th Congress by the “destroy-everything” 114th Congress is the most urgent indicator of this turn — a neoliberal corporatist turn which activists for progress must do everything in their power to combat.

In less than one month, the GOP-led legislative branch, seemingly hell-bent on sacrificing reforms that benefit the public to the insatiable demands of Corporate America’s lobbyists, has pushed one destructive, deregulatory bill after another.

This twisted prioritization of Big Business’ demands to deregulate over policies that most benefit the public would be deeply misguided under any economic conditions — but, as corporate profits reach record highs and continue to grow, this obsession with legislation harmful to working- and middle-class families (let alone the poor) is outright cruel.

For those not keeping track, there are already ample examples of the destroy-everything Congress carrying out the bidding of big business:

· H.R. 37 would undermine financial reforms that protect Main Street from Wall Street recklessness (including a delay to 2019 of the already long-delayed Volcker rule)

· H.R. 185 would gum up the federal regulatory process, making it nearly impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, or any other federal agency to write new rules. It would also direct agencies to prioritize writing regulations to the benefit of Big Business instead of basing them on what scientific evidence shows would most benefit the public.

· H.R. 3 would write the executive branch out of the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline, ignore any environmental objections to the project, and hand over the permit to TransCanada to begin construction.

More of the same is expected in the near future. For example, race-to-the-bottom “trade” deals that enable corporations to challenge commonsense consumer protections (like dolphin-safe labels on tuna and country of origin labels on other meat products); laws to shield reckless corporations from ripped-off and injured consumers who file suit; and attempts at full-scale repeals of recent important reforms like Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act.

So how did the Roberts Court’s Citizens United ruling back in 2010 pave the way for the destroy-everything Congress?

For starters, it paved the way for fresh attacks in the courts against policies designed to make our elections fairer.

The SpeechNow v. FEC ruling was handed down just a few months after Citizens United. It enabled the creation of so-called super PACs, which can receive and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals so long as they remain “independent” of the candidate on whose behalf the campaign spending is being done. Public Citizen, the organization I work for, has been tracking the supposed independence of these super PACs — and has found abundant evidence that, not only do many super PACS have close ties with the candidates they support, but nearly half of all super PACs in the 2014 election were devoted to supporting a single candidate.

A string of Supreme Court rulings followed, including McCutcheon v. FEC most recently. All of these decisions have added new hurdles to advancing anti-corruption reforms while at the same time lessening limits on corporations and billionaires who want to tilt elections toward their preferred candidates.

These rulings made the corporate lobbyists that infest the House and Senate with legislation that substitutes what’s best for Big Business for what’s best for all of us into the most powerful lobbyists the Capitol has ever seen. Their new power is the implicit threat they carry with them: Vote the way we want, or else face a tsunami of attack ads during the election.

Of course, no political ads ran in any election that said “paid for by ExxonMobil” or “brought to you by JPMorgan Chase” or “I’m Monsanto and I approve this message.”

That’s because much of the new corporate spending in elections allowed by the Citizens United ruling can easily evade disclosure through the tax code. Corporations that want to use their funds to influence elections simply shuffle the money into dark money groups — groups organized as trade associations or “social welfare” nonprofits. These groups are permitted to engage in electioneering so long as influencing elections is not their “primary purpose” — a vague litmus that is neither defined nor enforced by the IRS and which desperately requires reform.

The acute fear of attacks by corporate interests that can wage propaganda campaigns while hiding behind supposedly staid business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or more overtly ideological dark money outfits such as those led by Karl Rove or the Koch brothers drove most Democrats to avoid picking policy fights that pit the interests of corporations and billionaires against the rest of us.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are spending at least half of their time raising money for re-election — a fact that further tilts the process to favor the super-rich donor class. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis of donor demographics, only 0.22 percent of the population gives more than $200 to political campaigns per election cycle — but those donations make up 66.7 percent of all donations or more than $2 billion in 2014.

If political scientists started from scratch with the intention of designing an electoral and legislative system designed to deliver as much as possible for corporations and the wealthy, what they’d come up with would probably look a lot like this.

So, what is someone who wants to change the system supposed to do about it?

First, avoid cynicism.

Coming to terms with the fact that the U.S. election system is broken — and that it has resulted in the election of the destroy-everything Congress — is not a great starting point for avoiding cynicism, I know.

But there are solutions on the table. And if people who want to reverse the corruption of our electoral system don’t advocate for the solutions, no one will — and those who benefit from the broken system will make sure it stays broken. Some might say that, for corporate lobbyists, the systemic corruption of our democracy is not a bug, but a feature.

Some of the solutions are small, incremental changes — like requiring candidates for the U.S. Senate to electronically file their campaign spending data, so voters, journalists and watchdogs have quicker and easier access to the information. Some of them are bold game-changers, like a constitutional amendment.

Second, do everything you can to support the solutions.

Organize a local group. Sign a petition. Call your representative and senators, and set up meetings with their offices.

On January 21, 2015, the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, Americans will demand solutions to our money in politics problem at rallies across the country — including at a protest outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, reform-minded members of Congress will, together, introduce legislation designed to combat the corporate and plutocratic forces corrupting our elections and to amplify the people’s influence in the workings of our government.

Here are some of the solutions that merit your support:

· The Democracy For All Constitutional Amendment would restore the First Amendment to the American people, overturning Citizens United by allowing limits on corporate election spending.

· The Government By the People Act would amplify and empower the voices of all Americans by matching small dollar contributions with public funds.

· The DISCLOSE Act would ensure our right to know who is influencing and our elections by putting an end to corporations and billionaires using dark money groups to mask their identities.

· The Shareholder Protection Act would put shareholders, not the CEOs, in charge of whether corporations spend their money to influence elections.

Finally, keep standing up to the destroy-everything Congress.

Corporate lobbyists want you to disengage. They want you to be cynical and apathetic. They want you to believe your members of Congress are hopelessly bought, or that your members of Congress are on the side of the angels and don’t need to be reminded not to give in when Big Business wants to put its priorities over yours.

Remember: Your members of Congress will be hearing from corporate lobbyists whether or not they hear from you.

Make sure they hear from you — loudly and often.

The court’s ruling that money is speech is discouraging. But don’t forget: Your voice is still speech too.

Rick Claypool is the online director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Follow him on Twitter @RickClaypool.

Written by

Research Director for Public Citizen's President’s Office. Investigating how corporate power undermines democracy and justice.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store