The Citizens United election campaign is in full swing. Spending patterns for the congressional and presidential campaigns are far different from those of 2010 and 2008. This time, old-style spending from direct candidate contributions is flat or down, while newfangled "independent expenditures"--that are not given to candidates or spent by their campaign organizations--are soaring. So far in the 2012 election cycle, more than $250 million in independent expenditures have been made, which is almost three times as much as at the same point in 2008--and this is written before the post-convention spending spree.
Why is there this big shift? Blame (or credit) Citizens United (CU), the Supreme Court decision formally titled Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Issued on Jan. 21, 2010, the decision allowed independent organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertising, as long as their efforts are neither part of nor coordinated with a candidate's formal campaign organization.
The CU decision was enormously controversial from the start. At his State of the Union address a week after the decision was announced, President Barack Obama famously rebuked Supreme Court justices for the decision. It's been acclaimed as a major victory for the First Amendment and condemned as a powerful corrosion of democracy by wealthy special interests. However, everyone has agreed that it's time to spend--big time.
What Is CU?
I was curious about the group that launched this landmark case. From the CU website, I learned that it describes itself as supporting "traditional American values." It contributes to Republican presidential and congressional candidates, leaning toward those who are strongly conservative (so far, no money to Mitt Romney). It is also very small, with slightly more than $500,000 donated to 75 presidential and congressional candidates in 2012 (through July 9). Its site lists the individual contributions, which range from $1,000 to $15,000.
But it turns out that there's more to CU than a handful of chump-change contributions. What about nearly $200,000 spent on behalf of three extremely conservative congressional candidates? What about nearly $50,000 spent against the candidacy of moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar? There's nothing on the CU site about these two cases. This is probably because these are independent expenditures from CU's super PAC (political action committee).
Secrets in the Open
How do I know about CU's independent expenditures? It's easy with OpenSecrets.org, the leading source for tracking money in politics. OpenSecrets has other things about CU that are not on its own website, including a list of individual donors to CU and contributions from CU to other PACs.
OpenSecrets is the go-to place for information on the intersection of money and politics in U.S. national government. Whatever the manifestation--PACs, super PACs, lobbying, earmarks--OpenSecrets tracks it with minute detail (all data in this review are from the OpenSecrets site).
OpenSecrets is the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, a respected nonpartisan group that identifies itself as "the nation's premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy." It was founded in 1983 and launched the OpenSecrets website in 1996. The center is supported mainly by donations from foundations and individuals, but it doesn't get support from companies, trade associations, or labor unions. It derives additional revenue from custom research, and the website has moderate-sized ads on most pages.
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OpenSecrets covers all the points in national politics where money influences actions, including the following:
* Presidential (from 2004) and congressional campaigns (from 1997): Contributions and donors, searchable and sortable by individuals, industry sector, groups, and geography; the candidates' personal finances included
* Congressional committees (from 1999): Provides industry sector donations to committee members
* Earmarks (from 2008): Lists Congress members' individual earmarks by amount and recipient with tie-ins to recipients' campaign contributions
* Lobbying and influence: A roundup of lobbyists, PACs, super PACs, and donors
* Revolving door: Names and profiles of congresspeople and staffers from Congress, congressional committees, and federal agencies who have moved to jobs with special interest groups and vice versa
Good Organization, Context, and Commentary
OpenSecrets obtains its raw data from several sources. …