Why Citizens United Has Gotta Go and How We can Make Make it Go

The United States of America’s democracy is based and founded upon the concept of representation above all else. Citizens are empowered by being given the right to vote for political candidates who in turn weigh the competing interests of the citizens and create polices that will generate a favorable social and economic environment for as many people as possible. Though this system relies on the best judgement of only a small number of people within the country, these politicians must serve the people successfully if they wish to maintain this level of political power. However, the circumstances of our political election system has changed increasingly over the years due to corporations and individuals being able to give massive amounts of money to certain representatives. This creates a political environment where, as John Gardner put in his 1993 speech entitle “Rebirth of a Nation”, “our leaders are accountable to donors rather than voters, that makes it possible for money to buy political outcomes, to buy politicians” (Wertheimer). Through these allies and increase in funds, politicians can afford more advertising time all around the nation to gain support while also being able to use those funds to publicly slander their opponents. This was not always the case in this country and there is a reason for that. Over the years there have been a number of policies and supreme court decisions that have empowered corporations in being able to finance political candidates but none more influential than The Citizens United vs. FEC supreme court decision that gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates (Dunbar). Seeing as our politicians are the ones who create the policies that set the stage for our political and social environment, I propose that the Citizens United vs. FEC be brought back to the Supreme Court and be overturned. By doing this, unions and corporations would have to adhere to the same laws they did before the Supreme Court Case which in turn would return power in elections to the people, not the money.

Economic inequality plagues our country more so than ever and is often referred to as the struggle of our time. Overturning Citizens Untied would be the most effective way of combating the current economic disparity within our nation by forcing our politicians to serve the interest of the American people who are suffering as opposed to serving the wealthy corporations and individuals who wish to only accumulate more wealth at the cost of making life more difficult for millions of Americans. Before rushing into how this would influence who our politicians are and what policies are put into action, the history of campaign finance policy should be known first.

Starting back in 1957 was the first supreme court hearing dealing with campaign finance in American politics. In the case United States vs. Auto Workers, Justice Felix Frankfurter delivered the opinion for the majority, reversing the lower court’s dismissal of an indictment against a labor union accused of violating a federal law barring corporations and labor organizations from making contributions or expenditures in conjunction with federal elections. The indictment charged the union with using dues to sponsor television commercials relating to the 1954 congressional elections. In 1976, The Buckley vs. Valeo decision addressed whether electoral expenditure limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act violated freedom of speech rights protected by the First Amendment. The Court held that restrictions on individual contributions did not violate the First Amendment, but that restricting campaign expenditures did. In 1978, The First National Bank of Boston vs. Bellotti, the Court held that a state criminal statute barring certain expenditures by banks and corporations aimed at influencing votes on referendum proposals violated the First Amendment rights of those entities. In the 1990 case of Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court ruled that the Michigan Chamber of Commerce could not run a newspaper advertisement supporting a candidate for the state legislature because it was subject to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which prohibited corporations from using treasury money in independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates running for state offices. The chamber of commerce was not, though, barred from making expenditures using money from a fund designated solely for political purposes. The Bipartisan Campaign Act of 2002 made it a crime to broadcast “electioneering communications” financed by corporations shortly before elections. In 2003, the McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission held, in a 5–4 decision, that those limits created by the Bipartisan Campaign Act of 2002 did not violate First Amendment rights. As with many of its decisions on campaign finance issues, the Court focused on whether the regulations were justified by the state’s interest in preventing potential corruption arising from campaign donations (Barnes).

Between 1957 and the present there have been 25 supreme court hearings dealing with campaign finance. The good majority of these decisions sided with protecting public elections from extensive outside financing. Also, “The Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974 (FECA) form the basis of current federal campaign finance law. FECA’s main provisions include limits on contributions to federal candidates and political parties, a system for disclosure and voluntary public financing for presidential candidates”. (Campaign Finance Law, 2014). However, with the Citizens United decision, the good majority of these supreme court decisions were overturned, including the Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Bipartisan Campaign Act of 2002. FECA was also severely weakened by the decision to the point that it is to an extent ineffective in regulating campaign finance. Non-federal financial accounts began being formed under the control of national party committees for which they could raise money with no contribution limits. This allowed Corporation and “1%ers” to pool their money together in whatever quantities they wanted and put it towards particular parties and candidates (Gutierrez). Citizens United single handedly destroyed the restrictions and allowed for groups to rise and take political power.

The formation of political action committees or what is known as PACs, have formed an industry around financing candidates in elections on every level of the political scale. Just in this coming presidential election of 2016, over 1 billion dollars is being raised by super PACs alone for the republican party primarily coming from the Koch brothers whose net worth is a combined 82 billion dollars. (Clyne, 2015). The Koch brothers alone are the most frequent contributors to political campaigns in the last few decades. “The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history.” (Confessore, 2015). When this much money is being invested into the candidates, they are pretty much running in collaboration with their investors and creating the policy together. The Koch brothers have worked closely with Senator Scott Walker in particular over the last several or so elections involving him and gave a handsome 11 million dollars towards his campaign for president this year (Sirota). It comes as no surprise that Scott Walker’s administration in Wisconsin passed The Wisconsin Budget Repair Act in 2011 that eliminated collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave from Union rights in order to strengthen big business (Gibney, Park Avenue: Money, Power, and The American Dream).

Since George Bush Sr. came to power, every candidate who has spent more money than their opponent during the presidential election has won (Cox). The Bush family has also been significantly assisted financially in their elections over the course of those years. While both George Bush Sr. and his son were running in their respective campaigns, The CEO of Enron Power Company (Ken Bell) gave millions to their campaigns. George H. W. Bush conveniently pushed to deregulate electricity in California allowing Enron to manipulate the electricity market and drive the prices up on residents in many sectors of California. While traders and Enron management grew rich off stock, the people of California were being driven into poverty due to the prices while Bushes administration sided with big business (Gibney, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room). Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, for the upcoming 2016 election has already collected 108 million dollars (Greer). Also, only 158 corporations have funded nearly half the early white house efforts with over 1 billion dollars. Being only the second presidential election since the Citizens United Decision, campaigns have been flooded with corporate money more so than ever before but particularly since the Bipartisan act was overturned. It is obvious that The Bush family assisted big business for their ample contribution they made to the family. By overturning Citizens United, an environment would exist where gaining the support of voters in elections could only be through presenting policies that appeal to voters.

In order for Citizens United to be overturned, there is a process that must be followed. First off, there would have to be plenty of grass roots support from people all around the nation. Petitioning would be absolutely necessary in order to have evidence that this something that a vast population of people want changed within our country. From there the petitions and proposal would have to be brought to a member of Congress and that member of congress. From there with the help of lobbying and strong convincing to potential opposition, a constitutional amendment of overturning The Citizens United Decision would require a 2/3 majority vote in congress and would finally be overturned and put the previous campaign finance regulations back into effect.

The fact that corporations can buy power through these candidates disrupts the whole meaning of democracy in America and is plain and simply corrupt. The root of economic inequality is policy after all. The great president Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” (Johnson, 235). Iris Manon Young, a political scientist, believes justice is when everyone has the power to be involved in democratic decision making about the things that affect our lives. In a representative democracy, who we elect means how we want our issues and struggles to be addressed and hopefully resolved. As long as Citizens United Stands, there cannot be justice within the United States because the people who gain power would not help resolve the issues that are hurting so many Americans these days because of corporate power. John Gaventa, another political scientist, created what is called the 3 levels of power. His theory is that when you affect the second or third level of power, it changes all the levels of power below it. By overturning Citizens United, the second level of power which is “who makes the rules to the game” would change because corporations would not be able to have influence on election and control them as they do now. This would in turn affect the first level of power which is “who wins/loses in a competition” because when Citizens United is overturned, it would create a more leveled playing field in political elections and have an effect on who can win elections. Money should not have a say in who has the loudest voice in choosing our politicians. If such continues, this nation simply will not be able to call itself a democracy but rather a plutocratic oligarchy. There must be a limit put on what any organization or account can contribute to a party or candidate in particular. This would make candidate rely much more on being genuine and reaching out to the communities face to face rather than dumping hundreds of millions into advertising. This would be a major step towards allowing those voices suffering from economic inequality to be heard once again, and their demands in a politician finally met.

Works Cited

Barnes, Robert. “GO BEYOND: SUPREME COURT CAMPAIGN FINANCE DECISIONS TIMELINE.” Columbia Law School Magazine (2015).

Cox, Brent. “How Much More Money Do Presidential Candidates Raise Today?” 6 November 2012. The Awl. Document. 3 December 2015. Campaign Finance Law. (2014). Retrieved from The Campaign Finance Institute: http://www.cfinst.org/law.aspx

Clyne, M. (2015). Top Super Pacs of 2016. Retrieved from Newsmax: http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/super-pacs-fundraising-2016-president/2015/05/06/id/642870/

Campaign Finance Law. (2014). Retrieved from The Campaign Finance Institute: http://www.cfinst.org/law.aspx

Dunbar, John. The ‘Citizens United’ Decision and Why It Matters. 18 October 2012. <http://www.publicintegrity.org/2012/10/18/11527/citizens-united-decision-and-why-it-matters>.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. Dir. Alex Gibney. 2005. CD.

Greer, Alex. Ranking the 2016 Candidates with the Biggest Super PACs: Inside Gov. 4 August 2015. 2015.

Gutierrez, Michael. “Campaign Finance: An Overview.” Point of View: Campaign Finance January 2015: part 1.

Park Avenue: Money, Power, and The American Dream. Dir. Alex Gibney. 2012. CD.

Sirota, David. “GOP Candidate Scott Walker’s Departure Deals Blow To Koch Brothers’ 2016 Hopes, Whom Will Koch Brothers Support Now?” International Business Times (2015): 34–48.

Wertheimer, Fred. “Campaign Finance Reform: A Key To Restoring The Health of Our Democracy.” Columbia Law Review (1994): 1126–1159.