Citizens United and the Perils of Super PACs: Why Campaign Finance Reform is Needed Now More Than Ever

Posted by Blake Wright on April 06, 2014 at 3:47 PM


Campaign finance laws are not what most Millennials spend their spare time thinking about, but the laws affects them every day, even more so in election years.  While there are many noble causes to advocate for, one of the least sexy but most important to our fundamental rights and freedoms is campaign finance reform.  It is hard enough to get Millennials motivated to vote, especially in non-presidential cycles, but it is even more of a challenge when they find out that the system is rigged.  While some issues may separate candidates, in the long run, they are mostly held accountable to the same special interests that spend the most money towards campaigns.  When interest groups like “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma” spend millions in campaign contributions to both parties in the election, does it matter who you vote for?  

What is a Super PAC and how do they affect the election process?

A Super PAC, or independent expenditure-only committee, “may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Super PACs must, however, report their donors to the Federal Election Commission on a monthly or quarterly basis – the Super PAC's choice – as a traditional PAC would. Unlike traditional PACs, Super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates”.1  The 2010 Citizens United ruling protects political spending by corporations in candidate elections, citing the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech.  In justifying the ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that “'If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech'”.2   The ruling also lifted the ban on advertising “electioneering communications” by corporations or labor unions thirty days prior to a presidential primary and sixty days prior to the general elections.3  With this decision, corporations can spend freely on political advertisements however they choose and donate as much of their money that they want to Super PACs, the majority of it anonymously.  With no more restrictions on airing political advertisements just before an election, corporations and the wealthy elite, through Super PACS, can flood the airwaves with commercials either for or against a candidate, most of which are grossly biased and misleading.

Why is Campaign Financing coming up now?

On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in McCutcheon v. FEC that “caps on the total amount of money an individual can give to political campaigns, PACs and parties are unconstitutional.”4  The five Republican-appointed justices ruled that limitations on contributions violated the First Amendment, while the Democratic-appointed justices dissented, arguing that the limits are constitutional and necessary to prevent corruption.  Justice Breyer, who voted with the minority, said that the ruling “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.  Taken together with Citizens United… today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”5  While some have argued that this new ruling will allow the candidates and parties themselves to take back control of some of the Super PAC funding, thus controlling their own message, it adds to the ever-increasing problem of money in politics, allowing a few individuals to voice their opinions louder than the majority of Americans. 

What is the political climate/feasibility for Campaign Finance Reform?

McCutcheon is the latest setback to CFR but is hardly shocking after the Citizens United ruling several years ago.  The issue seems to be split among party lines, although both sides have had to resort to the use of Super PACs in their campaigns, as the only option currently seems to be to fight money with money.   Outside influence in politics is far from a new phenomenon.  As far back as the early 1800s, Andrew Jackson would appoint his election supporters to cabinet posts and other public jobs, initiating a new “spoils systems” which deprived the citizens of the United States of the best person for the job.6  In the most recent 2012 Presidential election, Super PACs spent a more than a combined $240,000,000, while both President Obama and Mitt Romney benefited from over $1 billion in campaign related expenditures, including spending by the candidates, national parties, and outside entities, the majority of the money going to advertising and television networks.7 8  With the partisan divide in the current Congress, it seems that we will have to wait for a Democrat-nominated justice to rise to the Supreme Court or a massive overhaul of the current members of Congress.   

What are some proposed changes to the current Campaign Finance laws?

Besides electing members to Congress who could overwhelming enact CFR legislation or waiting for a new Supreme Court justice, the United States could take a cue from other democracies around the globe and increase public funds for financing, while limiting the role of private money in elections.  There is already a system in place, but candidates today have no real chance to win if they accept public funds while their opponent(s) do not.  According to the Federal Election Commission, “The Presidential nominee of each major party may become eligible for a public grant of $20 million (plus a cost-of-living adjustment) for campaigning in the general election.To be eligible to receive the public funds, the candidate must limit spending to the amount of the grant and may not accept private contributions for the campaign.”9 Norway is taking the lead in using public funds for elections, accounting for 74 percent of income for political parties in 2010.10  Also, they are on the opposite side of the advertising spectrum from the United States, as political advertising is banned from television and radio.  Given this information, it is no coincidence that Norway ranked at the top of the list for “Satisfaction with Democracy” out of twenty-nine total nations, according to a study by David M. Farrell of University of Manchester and Ian McAllister of Australian National University.11

 Why should I care?

Legal rulings such as Citizens United and McCutcheon combined with already lax campaign financing laws have undermined the democratic process, allowing wealthy donors to buy elections; so-called Super PACs are a pernicious influence on society and should be abolished.  The evidence for campaign finance reform is overwhelming, and the United States needs to end its complacency while the wealthiest in America buy our elections.  The Citizens United ruling opened the flood gates for unchecked corporate money to drown the voice of the everyday American.   Elected officials work for all Americans, not just their top campaign contributors; it is imperative that sweeping reforms are made to ensure democracy is preserved in the United States. It is time we learn from the mistakes of President Andrew Jackson, who remorsefully said “I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office”.