Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Root of Super PACs in the 2012 Election

ByMarlena Luhr

In 2010, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee opened the door to unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. One part of the decision allowed corporations to create fundraising committees that are able to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. Although the term was not used in the case, these committees are now commonly called “Super PACs.”

The only qualifier for these committees is that there can be no coordination with the official campaign of the candidate they support. Of course, it’s ridiculous to believe that candidates are not coordinating with these large donors considering that their advertising and messaging is always perfectly fitting with the campaigns they support. On a philosophical level, the idea of candidates becoming even more dependent on wealthy donors for their campaigns than they already are is sickening. But even on a more practical level, one effect of this case is that corporations can now threaten public office holders with negative campaigning if favored issues are not made a priority.

The conservative majority’s reasoning in Citizens United was based on the legal theory of corporate personhood, which holds that corporations have some of the same rights as individual people, including freedom of speech. By defending the speech rights of corporations, the Court was arguably trying to protect free speech in general from being restricted by the government. The majority opinion makes a valid point that complicated restrictions could stop a person from participating in free speech for fear of breaking a law and being penalized. However, the decision wrongly assumes that free speech necessarily includes the ability to freely spend money to promote that speech. All Politics, a CNN blog, argues that the access that money brings to politics will lead to more tax loop holes for corporations.  A different option for corporations to use free speech would be with free media. A corporation could publicly announce support for a candidate. This would of course cause corporations to attach their names to a candidate which would not always be favorable to gain support for candidates. The Court also asserted that access gained from large contributions will not create more corruption as the donations are not going directly to the campaign. In reality, it seems obvious that if a candidate is supported with a large sum of money, directly donated to the campaign or not, it will affect policy priorities. 

Corporations have a single purpose: creating profit. And that profit motive is bound to drive the types of policies they try to put into place as a result of this ruling. In the majority opinion, the Court acknowledged that the political ideas of corporations may not follow public opinion. Since Super PACs can use general treasury funds, they give corporations power to dump large amounts of money into political advertisements. Although the Court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in the Citizens United decision, Austin took the far more sensible view that corporations are simply immense aggregations of wealth and now have too much influence compared to individual voters.

To reverse this unsettling trend, I’ve created a petition on entitled “Stop Super PACs.” If the petition, currently supported by fourteen colleges and universities in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, receives 25,000 signatures, we will get a response from a White House policy official. As I explain in the petition, my solution is to propose a constitutional amendment stating that any entity that creates election-focused advertising should be registered as a regular Political Action Committee. Currently, regular PACs cannot receive contributions from treasury funds of corporations. Only individual people can contribute to such PACs, and those who do can only donate $5,000 per year. PACs also are required to disclose the identity of all donors. Super PACs don't have the same strict transparency requirements, which allows corporations to support a candidate without being accountable.  To learn more about disclosure in Super PACs Brennan Center published a great article.

Even though President Barack Obama has announced his reluctant support for super PACs and Congress has take no significant action on the matter, a decision this unfair cannot go unaddressed. Public officials are likely to support the decision since it allows them to outsource campaign financing to a third policy. Super PACs have also created a dangerous cycle, because with so many having been established, candidates without them will have significantly less media support than candidates who do have them. If public office holders owe a political debt to corporations that have raised millions of dollars to get them elected, policy will not be aimed to improve our country.

Photo Credit: Public Citizen