This week marks the ninth anniversary of the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) ruling. In the 5-4 decision on January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court drastically altered the influence of money in American politics, and absolutely none of it for the good. (Check out last year’s blog for an in-depth recap of the case.)
Ultimately, that ruling in Citizens United’s favor decided that the First Amendment allows corporate spending on independent political broadcasts in elections to be unlimited. Otherwise, according to Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion, “speech would be suppressed in the realm where its necessity is most evident: in the public dialogue preceding a real election.” This meant that corporations were therefore under no restrictions on what they could spend to influence elections, opening the floodgates for billions of dollars of dark money to flow into our politics in the ensuing decade.
While promoting access to the public dialogue before any election is exceedingly important, casting corporations and individuals as equals just doesn’t make sense. Every other institution understands the difference between companies and people, from the tax code to retail and residential property regulations. Ignoring the divide between a comedian lambasting politicians in her set and WalMart clandestinely funding a super PAC is the height of ignorance, and dangerous. The former is front-facing and, as we’ve seen in recent cycles, has little overall impact, while the latter can upend our democracy.
To Justice Kennedy, however, movies, television, comedies, and Youtube skits created by exempt media corporations that “might portray public officials or public policies in unflattering ways” is similar to outright political transmissions purchased or advanced by non-exempt corporations. Although the similarities end at both being political speech, he believes the latter should not be illegal, or even regulated, while the former isn’t lest their First Amendment rights be suppressed.
Unsurprisingly, in the almost decade since this ruling, big money has wreaked havoc on our political system, making “one person, one vote” less of a reality. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans are tired of it. This could not have been what the Supreme Court intended (I hope), but it is the result of the majority’s willingness to assume the best of corporations at the expense of everyday Americans. Thankfully, House Democrats just said enough is enough with the introduction of the most comprehensive democracy reform bill seen in decades.
If successful, HR 1 would rein in the influence of money in politics and shed a light on dark money contributions. Included in the For The People Act is language mandating corporations disclose political spending, digital companies set up public databases listing political ad purchase requests of $500 or more, and new measures to prevent foreign national from buying ads, among other things. Perhaps most promising is a new matching-fund program for House candidates who agree to raise only small-dollar donations, as well as the revamping of the public financing system for presidential candidates.
While HR 1 isn’t the perfect solution to every problem facing our democracy and cannot undo all the harm done in recent elections, it’s a necessary step in the right direction that would transform the way our elections and our government are run. All Americans should pay attention to how politicians reflect on this ninth anniversary of Citizens United and how they vote on this important piece of campaign finance reform.