The Race Is On: When the Supreme Court Overturned a Long-Term Trend to Limit Political Spending of Corporations and Unions, It Set the Stage for a Lively and Lucrative 2012 Presidential Campaign

By Fischer, Raymond L. | USA TODAY, November 2011 | Go to article overview

The Race Is On: When the Supreme Court Overturned a Long-Term Trend to Limit Political Spending of Corporations and Unions, It Set the Stage for a Lively and Lucrative 2012 Presidential Campaign


Fischer, Raymond L., USA TODAY


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THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign leading to the 2012 election promises to be the most expensive and contentious in U.S. history. It will provide everything campaign followers crave: humor, suspense, confrontation, and more information than any one person possibly can assimilate. The ability of corporations, unions, and nonprofit organizations to generate astronomical expenditures derives from a Supreme Court decision overturning a 20-year-old law prohibiting corporations and unions from using money from their general treasuries to purchase campaign ads. Infighting among the many Republican candidates and the impact of the ultraconservative Tea Party movement prefigure explosive contention. Traditional media members expect a banner year of political advertisements and propaganda.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission in an 83-page document. A disappointment to activists who have tried to limit the role of special interests in politics, the ruling will change funding of presidential elections. The court also smack down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill barfing union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

The five-to-four decision created a sharp doctrinal shift in a bitterly divided court. Chief Justice John Roberts said failure to overturn the limits would have "restrained the vibrant public discourse that is the foundation of our democracy." In his dissent, the since-retired Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutes around the nation."

In arguing stricter limits constituted restraint of free speech, the majority removed limits on independent expenditures not coordinated with candidate's campaigns; however, the opinion of the justices did not change bans on direct contributions to candidates. "The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree and selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spend money on one's behalf," according to Stevens.

The Court's decision also will alter funding of elections in the 14 states that presently have election laws: corporations, unions, and other organizations have gained new power to influence elections indirectly.

Political finance rules resulting from the Citizens United decision allow formation of new groups with few limits on fundraising. Super PACs (Political Action Committees) and nonprofit groups identified as 501(c)(4)s can amass as much money as they want as long as they stay independent of a candidate's campaign. Super PACs differ from traditional action committees inasmuch as they cannot donate directly to a candidate's campaign. By law, Super PACs must declare they ale "not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee"; however, they obviously, though indirectly, support a candidate.

Super PACs have become a rapidly expanding trend in political fundraising. A powerful way for high-dollar donors to influence elections, they potentially diminish the role of political parties. Pres. Barack Obama labeled the Supreme Court's decision "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and other powerful interests that use power in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." The groups Obama targeted have supported Republicans in the past--and Republicans duly reciprocated. However, Obama failed to mention organizations such as General Electric (which supports the Democrats and, in Own, receive tax reductions).

Currently, every Republican candidate has at least one Super PAC, and several have more than one. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, for instance, entered the race with six Super PACs. Republican groups led by Karl Rove have promised to raise $120,000,000 for the presidential race and, in June, he announced that his PACs expect to spread a $20,000,000 ad campaign across 10 states. …

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