As the clock ticks down to a midterm election in which the balance of power in Congress is very much in doubt, the corrosive effects and unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 become more apparent with each new attack ad. Hundreds of millions of dollars of special interest money — much of it from undisclosed donors and spent on mostly negative advertising by vaguely defined advocacy groups —
is a result of the decision. The pieces below explore the corrupting potential of this trend.
“. . . In 1976, the Supreme Court blocked parts of the post-Watergate reforms, ruling on First Amendment grounds, and the court has steadily pared away the limits on campaign spending ever since . . . The elections on Nov. 4 are on pace to be the most expensive midterms in history (even adjusting for inflation), a distinction hardly worth mentioning in an era when each cycle sets a new record of one kind or another.
“‘We have three elements today: unlimited contributions, corporate money, and secret money. Those were the three elements of the Watergate campaign-finance scandal,’ Fred Wertheimer [of the advocacy group Democracy 21] said. ‘They’re back.’ ”
“While it’s impossible to know exactly how much corporate spending Citizens United has unleashed (because so much spending is no longer disclosed), four years on, it has become apparent that the biggest impact of the decision may have little to do with the spending of ‘corporate wealth’. . . Candidate-specific super PACs undercut federal contribution limits to candidates by allowing individuals to direct unlimited sums of money in support of someone running for office, while dark money groups evade the disclosure requirements for political contributions that currently exist under federal law. . .
“Large contributions to candidate-specific super PACs could raise the same corruption concerns that existing limits were created to prevent. . . The parade of presidential contenders who wooed super PAC mega-donor Sheldon Adelson this March suggests that giving generously to super PACs is an effective way to reach candidates, and possibly to affect the actions they take as elected officials, perhaps more so than joining the scores of donors who give to them directly.”
“[Richard] Nixon, as president of the United States, was exchanging public policy for money,” Wertheimer says . . . As Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig puts it, “Today we can do legally everything Nixon had to do illegally.”
“There is far too much complacency about big money’s role in this year’s campaigns, on the grounds that both sides have plenty of it. This misses the point. ‘It doesn’t balance it out if you have billionaire Republicans battling billionaire Democrats,’ says Robert Weissman, [president of the advocacy group Public Citizen]. ‘You still have billionaires setting the agenda for the election.’ ”
Marty Meehan has been chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell since 2007. He previously represented the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts in the US House of Representatives.