A year ago this week, the Supreme Court issued a ruling so momentous that many are still grappling to take stock of its impact on our political system.
This story originally appeared in Facing South, online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies.
The case: Citizens United. The decision: In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit in any way the amount of money corporations can spend on attack ads or other "electioneering communications" to sway a political race.
Before Citizens United, plenty of corporate money had found its way into political PACs and other avenues to influence elections. The court also did nothing to strike down the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates or political parties.
But the decision opened a massive loophole in our country's already-porous campaign finance system, giving corporations the green light to inject unlimited sums of cash into independent groups -- 527s and 501c4s, references to their IRS tax status -- that can intervene in elections.
After the January 2010 decision, many in the media reported that corporations may be skittish about fully exploiting Citizens United's political windfall, but that proved premature. Millions of dollars began flooding into existing electioneering like Americans for Prosperity, backed by benefactors like the Koch brothers and North Carolina retail magnate Art Pope. New groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads and American Crossroads GPS were quickly erected to funnel tens of millions of dollars into key congressional races.
A new report released by Public Citizen this week surveys the results:
* Spending by outside groups jumped to $294.2 million in the 2010 election cycle, a nearly four-fold increase from the $68.9 million spent in 2006, the last mid-terms. Nearly half of that ($138.5 million) came from just 10 groups, with the biggest share by far benefiting Republicans.
* In 60 out of 75 congressional races, the candidate benefiting most from outside spending won the race -- a remarkable 80 percent win rate.
* The source of the money flooding into elections after Citizens United largely hidden: Because many of the independent groups aren't required to disclose their donors, barely a third -- 34 percent -- of the groups reported which people and groups gave them money.
As Public Citizen notes, the cloak of secrecy surrounding corporate campaign spending goes against the Supreme Court thinking behind Citizens United, which was that massive corporate spending was acceptable as long as the public knew about it:
Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the majority was based in part on the assumption that any dangers posed by the new flood of corporate spending in elections would be mitigated by disclosure. "This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages," Kennedy wrote.
The DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have required non-profit groups to reveal the donors behind their election war chests, failed by one vote last spring in the face of a Senate Republican filibuster.
Although not as widely reported, Citizens United proved decisive in state elections as well. As Facing South documented in a series of reports, three independent groups backed by Art Pope in North Carolina -- Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC -- spent over $2 million targeting 22 state races, helping fuel the Republicans' capture of the N.C. legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Some advocates are calling for a new bill to force disclosure of the donors behind outside election spending, although it faces an uphill climb in the Republican-controlled U.S. House and does little to combat the campaign spending arms race exacerbated by Citizens United.
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