by Clark Taylor
In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court paved the way for unprecedented amounts of outside campaign spending by powerful interests. As a result, billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have pledged to spend up to $400 million in an all-out effort to ensure that the voices of the richest few are heard the loudest.
The numbers support the trend. Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at University of California, Irvine, says outside campaign spending through March 8 amounts to more than $88 million for federal elections. This represents a significant contrast to the $37.5 million in 2004 and $14.2 million in 2000. The growth is even starker in mid-term years as the same spending jumped from $1.8 million in 2006 to $15.8 million in 2010.
Perhaps most disconcerting, this regime has led to a situation in which the superrich can spend more and more on elections without any disclosure. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in testimony before a Senate committee, claimed that there were at least 23 families worth over $1 billion who have given more than $250,000 in campaign contributions this cycle. Just 196 Americans have given more than 80 percent of the total money donated to super PACs.
Groups and individuals have proposed efforts to help blunt the or counter powerful interests seeking to sway elections. Professor Lawrence Lessig has advocated for a series of citizen conventions to craft a constitutional amendment. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has called for a constitutional amendment. The group Free Speech for People also proposes a constitutional amendment. Jeff Clements, co-founder and president of the group, stated in written testimony to the Senate, that a constitutional amendment was needed to restore congressional power over campaign finance regulation. Perhaps the closest Congress has come to reform was the DISCLOSE ACT, which would have required that independent groups disclose those donors who give more than $10,000. Though the bill received support from a majority of the Senate, Republicans blocked the measure using a procedural move.
But states also face growing challenges to ensure their elections are not bought by the superrich. The National Institute on Money in State Politics says that approximately $623M has been raised by candidates and committees for state offices so far this cycle. That number is in comparison to $2.9 billion which has been raised by federal campaigns, parties, and super PACs through March.
In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision to summarily reverse a century old Montana law put in place to protect the citizens of Montana from outright corruption at the hands of mining magnates, some states are forging ahead to fight for workable solutions. So far, 19 states have passed laws requiring more disclosure since Citizens United. Other states have eliminated limits, while others have no limits, and others still have limits in place only for corporations and unions.
Other states are finding it more difficult to forge a path forward. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy (D) vetoed a bill that would have required disclosure of campaign contributions. Though Malloy claimed to be for transparency, in his veto message he argued that the bill likely violated the Constitution in light of Citizens United. The business community applauded the veto.
Perhaps the most glaring example of a state struggling to find a path forward is Illinois. Earlier this month Governor Quinn (D) signed a law that eliminated campaign contribution limits. The law repealed another measure which had capped campaign contributions. While Quinn’s spokeswoman said the new law provided a ‘short-term fix,’ Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, knocked it as a way for the powerful to buy political favors.
[image via Beverly & Pack]