'Citizens United' Lives, Still Threatening Democracy

December 11, 2012
Guest Post

by Dan Mayer, Legal Fellow at Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign, which is working towards a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United v. FEC and limiting the influence of corporations and money in elections.

Six billion dollars. That’s just the reported amount spent to elect or defeat the entire slate of federal candidates in the 2012 cycle.

To be sure, some of the biggest players in the super PAC game weren’t very efficient about how they used the unlimited contributions they took from their ultra-wealthy individual and corporate patrons. Court rulings in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania put some of the most egregious voter suppression efforts on hold while invigorated civil rights groups worked to turn out every eligible voter they could find. Several prominent candidates suffered “legitimate” humiliation and defeat. And apparently, 47 percent of America wasn’t going to vote for Mitt Romney anyway (or so we hear). 

Does any of that mean that money doesn’t matter, that the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission era is over as quickly as it began? Don’t bet your democracy on it.

The Obama campaign outspent the Romney campaign, $549 million to $336 million. The national party committees were close in fundraising (a mere $50 million GOP advantage), but Democrats actually outspent Republicans $814 to $776 million. Outside groups, some disclosing their donors, some not, favored conservatives by $855 million to $406 million in “independent” spending. For all that, in the first full-scale conflagration since Citizen United, the great powers basically fought to a draw, barely moving the lines in Congress.

But big money is both vital and lethal in a midterm cycle. Campaign experts suggest that unlimited money, especially at the presidential level, has diminishing returns after name recognition and candidate definition sink in with the voters, whereas down-ballot races receive less attention and are more open to purchase.

In the 2010 congressional and state legislative races, Republicans, typically less ideologically shy about big money in politics, were swept into power on the back of a 327 percent increase in outside spending over the 2006 midterms, and 60 out of 75 party-switches in Congress correlated to more outside money spent to help the eventual winner. Democrats didn’t seriously get on board with super PACs until Obama endorsed White House veteran-run Priorities USA in early 2012. More money doesn’t always win, but if you’re going to be outspent you had better make your opponents work for it.

What does all that spending get if not a guaranteed win? Control of the debate.

The first time one of the two major presidential candidates mentioned climate change was when Obama gave his victory speech – the last campaign speech he’ll need to give. Barney Keller of the Club for Growth, discussing his organization’s transition from electioneering to lobbying in the coming months, may have inadvertently made the best case for campaign finance reform: “I think that members of Congress know that we are not afraid to replace a bad vote with a good one, if we can.”

What do you win if you had the money and charm to survive this onslaught? The chance to govern? Or just the chance to raise more money to try to survive the next round?

Our elected representatives are under constant threat from corporate interests: toe the line or spend the rest of your term scraping for every dollar you can to compete with the tidal wave of cash big business can unleash into your district.

In Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy brushed aside this obvious corruption. When given the chance this summer to correct that mistake and look at the evidence of corruption that supported Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, the Court refused. Obama may have won four more years in office, but the most likely retiree on the Court today may unfortunately be progressive champion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Citizens United, it seems, is going to be here for the long haul.

Each election pushes our government deeper and deeper into big business’s pockets. Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign has been working tirelessly to overturn Citizens United as soon as possible: with a constitutional amendment.

Just a year ago, we blogged about our ambitious plans; and today, we have more momentum than we could have fathomed, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our grassroots organizers all across the country.  

Since we began this campaign, 11 states and 350 municipalities have called for an amendment. Twenty-nine senators and 98 representatives are on board. Amending the Constitution shouldn’t be easy, but with the People behind us, change is possible.

Election Day 2012 proved one more thing – we can win.

Colorado, Montana, Chicago and San Francisco all passed ballot initiatives calling on Congress to act and passed them with 3-to-1 margins! Thirty-six local resolutions were on the ballot across Massachusetts, 10 in Illinois, and several more each in California, Colorado, Ohio and Oregon; all of them passed. Some 6 million Americans had the chance to vote to support an amendment, and did so in numbers that show this goes way beyond partisan politics.

On Jan. 19 a broad coalition of progressive organizations and grassroots activists will mark the third anniversary of the Citizens United decision with a national day of action, holding rallies, gathering petition signatures petitions and organizing teach-ins.

We invite students, lawyers, and professors to help build this movement and decide the future of our constitution. Organize a meeting, push for a campus, community or state resolution, write a letter to the editor, write a note in your law journal and let us know about it!

Mr. Mayer can be reached at dmayer@citizen.org for more information on organizing and getting involved in this important movement.

[image via Beverly & Pack]