Monday, September 17, 2012

What Citizens United Has Wrought

You can likely count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of Supreme Court rulings that your average American can name, much less explain. Citizens United is one of the few. An unusually large number of people know of the case and have formed an opinion about the court's decision. The words "Citizens United" have become part of our political vocabulary, shorthand for democracy for sale.

Even fairly casual observers know that the Citizens United ruling blessed unlimited corporate spending in elections. But when most people hear the word "corporation," they think business corporation. And they probably expected Citizens United to unleash an explosion of campaign ads sponsored by Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and the Bank of America. When that didn't happen, some concluded that Citizens United must not have been such a big deal.

Business corporations were never going to be the ones, visibly at least, to exploit the ruling and sponsor a torrent of campaign advertisements. Companies want to sell to everyone, and it's not good for business to alienate half of the population. What Citizens United was always most likely to do, and what it has in fact done, is produce an explosion in the number of political corporations. These new corporations – the offspring of Citizens United and a subsequent case called SpeechNow – now dot the landscape, many of them getting vast amounts of money funneled to them by businesses and their top executives.

As of today, 844 federal Super PACs have been formed to influence the 2012 presidential race and other federal elections. Some are for the Republicans and some are for the Democrats. They have names like Restore Our Future, Priorities USA, American Crossroads, Winning Our Future, Endorse Liberty, Make Us Great Again, and Liberty for All. Then there's Now or Never, New Prosperity Foundation, Prosperity First, Brighter Future Fund, Strong America Now, American Sunrise, America Shining, and Restoring America. Not to mention America for Americans and Americans for America (no, I am not making that up, there really are two separate groups with those names). And there's America Forever, America Get Up, America on the Move, American Crosswinds, American Crosswords, Americans for Balance, Americans for New Leadership, Americans for Real Change and, of course, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. That last one is comedian Stephen Colbert's real-life parody of all these other groups.

The meter is obviously running, but at last count these Super PACs have raised more than $349 million raised so far in 2012 and have spent over $243 million. Conservative Super PACs are outspending their liberal counterparts by more than 3 to 1. Despite getting their heads handed to them in this game, the Democrats are warmly embracing Super PACs.

And here's the statistic that speaks volumes about the fundamental character of these outfits: Of the money Super PACs have raised from individual donors, 80% has come from just 196 Americans. That's 63 one-millionth of 1% (.000063%) of the population giving four-fifths of the money.

On top of the Super PACs, there are 59 nonprofit “charities” that have spent $70 million so far in 2012 to influence national elections. These include groups like Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS (an arm of Karl Rove's American Crossroads), League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, Right to Life and the Club for Growth. These political groups are masquerading as tax-exempt charitable organizations, meaning that American taxpayers are subsidizing their political agendas. And unlike Super PACs, there is no disclosure of their donors. They can keep their sources of funds a secret. By the way, conservative nonprofits are outspending liberal ones by more than 6 to 1.

Here in Wisconsin, election authorities approved a rule (GAB 1.91) after the Citizens United decision came down, allowing committees to be formed to do unlimited corporate spending in state elections. After the rule went into effect in 2010, 13 such groups were formed to influence that year's elections. Twenty-one more were formed in 2011 to sponsor advertising aimed at swaying voters in last summer's recall elections. And then another 23 were formed in 2012 to influence this year's recalls as well as the regular elections this fall.

Among these state political corporations are the American Federation for Children, Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Advancing Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life, Republican State Leadership Committee, Koch Industries, Greater Wisconsin, Working America, Progressive Kick Wisconsin, Sportsmen for Wisconsin's Hunting Heritage, Taxpayers Hoping for Change, Patriot Advisors, Equality Wisconsin, Restore Wisconsin's Image and Reputation, Rebuild the Dream in Wisconsin, Coalition for American Values, Independents for Better Government, and Midwest Victory Team.

These groups and the rest of the 57 political corporations formed after the 2010 Citizens United ruling have collectively spent over $25 million on campaigning in Wisconsin elections. Because of inadequate state campaign finance disclosure laws, these groups are able to keep the public in the dark about where their money comes from.

Disclosure is inadequate because Citizens United rendered Wisconsin's disclosure laws obsolete overnight. Corporate election spending was banned in this state in 1905. So of course there was no law requiring disclosure of corporate election spending, because there was no such spending, it was illegal. When the Supreme Court struck down that ban in the Citizens United case, we not only lost the protection against the corrupting effects of unlimited corporate cash in elections but we also didn't get disclosure. Transparency in these transactions would require new laws requiring the disclosure of the origins of the funds fueling corporate electioneering. New laws that neither the current Republican-controlled legislature nor the Democratic majority that preceded it have enacted.

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