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A 'Citizens United' Storm is Brewing
By Damon Circosta
Published: Feb. 2, 2012
RALEIGH - The general public typically doesn’t follow the goings on at the U.S. Supreme Court.
But every now and again the high court decides a case that, like Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education, breaks through the veil and resonates with the public at large. In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down such a decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
The general proposition of the Citizens United ruling is that corporations are afforded similar free speech rights as individuals and that there can be no limit on their political expenditures, so long as they do not coordinate with the candidates themselves. Citizens United has entered the vernacular as shorthand for a new era in political spending.
While we have come to know Citizens United as the case that has unleashed a torrent of corporate money into our election system, the particulars of the ruling are somewhat obscure. Not only did the court take the usual step of deciding a constitutional question not originally proposed in the case, but it also produced an opinion with several different concurrences. The court’s role is to provide clarity and certainty to the laws of the land, but this decision has left the public with less certainty as to what the rules are in campaign finance.
Stepping into this uncertainty is a horde of special interest organizations seeking to buy influence in both state and federal government. They have decided to push the envelope of what is permissible and are relying on the muddied regulatory waters after Citizens United to keep them out of trouble.
As the 2012 election season kicks off, the work of these groups is already apparent as they attempt to influence the Republican primary. With innocuous-sounding names like “Winning the Future” and “Restore Our Future” they line up with their preferred candidate as a means of skirting campaign contribution limits. Unlike the candidates themselves, these so-called “super PACs” are free to spend whatever they want, don’t have to provide any meaningful disclosure of who they are and are funded largely by deep-pocketed interests.
If there are still people unfamiliar with Citizens United, they are about to become so. The decision is now two years old, but this is the first election cycle where we will see the full effects of it. There was a sneak preview in 2010 when super PACs started spending money in congressional elections. Citizens United was only a few months old then and not everyone was sure how to play this unregulated game. But in 2012, super PACs have grown up and the result is that just a few donors – wealthy individuals and large corporations – are playing an outsized role in this year’s elections.
Not everyone is happy. Small business owners not only have heard of the case, but according to a recent survey, two-thirds have a negative opinion of it. And groups as divergent as the occupy movement and the tea party movement have lambasted the effects of Citizens United.
The result is that big pools of money, controlled by very few people, are monopolizing the political discussion. Average citizens who engage in politics by chipping in a few bucks to a candidate are essentially drowned out.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of both the right and the left after a season of political spending unrivaled in our nation’s history. Perhaps there will be calls for reform. But one thing is for sure: it’s going to get worse before it gets better.