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Citizens United Four Years Later: Campaign Spending Is Consuming Our Democracy, But Grassroots Activists Battle to Reclaim It

Jan. 21, 2014

Citizens United Four Years Later: Campaign Spending Is Consuming Our Democracy, But Grassroots Activists Battle to Reclaim It

Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

Note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gave corporations the green light to spend unlimited sums to influence elections.

Four years after one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history, campaign spending and fundraising is consuming our democracy.

The only good news in a very bleak story of the fallout from Citizens United is that a vibrant grassroots movement has emerged to reclaim democracy – and is fast gaining ground.

One of countless telling facts of the impact of Citizens United on election campaigns: Up through election week in 2012, President Barack Obama had attended 221 fundraisers versus 101 campaign rallies, according to a New York Times tally. GOP contender Mitt Romney found himself so busy with fundraisers that he often did no more than one public event a day.

The two parties’ presidential contenders were not spending their time soliciting small donor donations. They were mingling exclusively with the super-rich, a state of affairs emblematic of post-Citizens United politics.

And the presidential candidates’ obsession with fundraising from the super-rich was only an indirect effect of Citizens United. The main direct impact has been a sharp spike in unaccountable outside spending by the super-rich and Big Business.

Thanks to Citizens United, unaccountable outside spending shattered records in 2010 and 2012, and will do so again in 2014. In many House and Senate races, outside spending is exceeding expenditures by the political parties, and often even the spending of the candidates – meaning the candidates and parties are losing control of campaign messages and, to a considerable extent, the campaigns themselves. Similarly, many state and even local elections are seeing surges of outside money that drown out the voices of candidates.

The overwhelming portion of the 2010 and 2012 spending was devoted to negative attack ads, which degrade the quality of political discourse, divert attention from genuine political debate, obscure more than enlighten – but succeed in moving voters.

Only a very small number of super-rich people and corporations are responsible for the vast majority of the outside spending. Led by business magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who combined spent nearly $100 million on the 2012 elections, fewer than 100 individuals contributed $1 million or more to super PACs. These individuals accounted for about three-quarters of the money raised by super PACs.

About half of all reported outside spending was channeled through Dark Money organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers-financed Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners. Virtually all serious corporate spending was channeled through Dark Money organizations, as brand-name corporations sought to escape any accountability for exercising their newfound Citizens United-enabled powers.

The outside spending does more than insert more negativity into elections. It helps determine outcomes, frames issues, sets parameters of political debate and chills elected officials from taking positions opposed by the super-rich and giant corporations.

Citizens United has stripped power from the people and conferred it on the corporate class.

A country that considers itself a democracy cannot tolerate such a state of affairs.

And a growing popular movement is insisting that it will not.

One sign: nearly 700,000 people have called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to issue a rule requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their campaign spending, to pull back the curtains on corporate Dark Money spending. That’s the first step to combating the effects of Citizens United, and the SEC should move expeditiously to issue such a rule. And today, more than 40 investment firms representing billions in assets under management sent a letter to the SEC urging it to require publicly held corporations to disclose political spending.

There is broad recognition across the country that the impact of Citizens United is so harmful, its legal jurisprudence so contrary to our nation’s shared values – including the free speech protections of the First Amendment – that it must be overturned. A vibrant movement calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy is spreading across the land. As a result of mounting grassroots pressure, 16 states and 500 cities and towns have called for an amendment. More than 140 members of Congress are sponsoring an amendment. President Obama says he supports an amendment.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Citizens United is almost certain to see its fifth anniversary. It’s a testament to the strength of a powerful grassroots democracy movement that it seems increasingly certain that it will not see its tenth.