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Citizens United still needs to go

Did the 2012 election results tell us anything useful about the influence of corporate money in politics?"Robert Weissman" "Public Citizen president"

You bet they did.

The price tag for the 2012 House, Senate and presidential races is estimated at a record $6 billion, by far the most expensive election our nation has ever seen. Much of that was spent by corporations, big industries and ultra-rich conservatives to defeat President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates for Congress. They didn’t defeat the president, and they lost a number of Senate seats that they had hoped to gain. But there is no question that the money affected the election and will have a major affect going forward.

The huge sums of money – much of it from undisclosed sources flowing into elections since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling – have changed the political landscape in a fundamental way. Here’s why:

  • Big money still wins. No serious person thinks money alone determines elections, but nor should anyone think it doesn’t matter. Recall that in the 2010 midterm elections, of 75 congressional contests in which partisan power changed hands, spending by outside groups favored the winning candidate in 60 contests.  This year, the Democrats amassed a huge sum of money – almost as much as the GOP – which they spent to support their candidates. In many Senate races and the presidency, they prevailed. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC founded by two former White House officials, spent $66.5 million on attack ads and is widely credited with helping keep President Barack Obama in the White House.
  • The money has a permanent chilling effect on office holders. Candidates backed by corporations and the wealthy are likely to carry the water for their backers. Even candidates who won despite running against Big Business will know that the same entities will try to defeat them next time. These politicians know that they cannot afford to sidestep, much less actively challenge, corporate interests when it could mean being targeted by those with infinitely deep pockets. So much for “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
  • Tactics may change but the money will still pour in. Expect to see the side that lost races mimic the tactics of the winning side or develop new ways to spend their money.

  • Campaign funders get to frame the issues. Politicians fearful of the fossil fuel industry barely uttered the words “climate change” this year, even as record-setting storms hit the country. And wealthy donors have an outsized say in the issues their candidates highlight.
  • In the ever-escalating money arms race, politicians will be forced to raise even more cash to retain their seats. This means they will have even less time to govern amid all the kowtowing to the mega-rich required to build their campaign war chests.
  • The money means we will continue to be inundated by negative ads, which are bad for democracy. Rather than hearing a healthy debate about the issues, voters get a steady diet of misleading, personal attacks.

There is no doubt: Citizens United paved the way for a force so pernicious that it threatens the foundation of our democracy. The only solution is a constitutional amendment to overturn it.

Robert Weissman is the president of @Public_Citizen. For more on Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign please follow @RuleByUs and visit www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org