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Context of 'November 23, 2011: FEC Refuses Senator’s Request to Form Own Super PAC'

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After years of battling Republican filibuster efforts and other Congressional impediments, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is signed into law. Dubbed the “McCain-Feingold Act” after its two Senate sponsors, John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), when the law takes effect after the 2002 midterm elections, national political parties will no longer be allowed to raise so-called “soft money” (unregulated contributions) from wealthy donors. The legislation also raises “hard money” (federal money) limits, and tries, with limited success, to eliminate so-called “issue advertising,” where organizations not directly affiliated with a candidate run “issues ads” that promote or attack specific candidates. The act defines political advertising as “electioneering communication,” and prohibits advertising paid for by corporations or by an “unincorporated entity” funded by corporations or labor unions (with exceptions—see June 25, 2007). To a lesser extent, the BCRA also applies to state elections. In large part, it supplants the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980). [Federal Election Commission, 2002; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file]
Bush: Bill 'Far from Perfect' - Calling the bill “far from perfect,” President Bush signs it into law, taking credit for the bill’s restrictions on “soft money,” which the White House and Congressional Republicans had long opposed. Bush says: “This legislation is the culmination of more than six years of debate among a vast array of legislators, citizens, and groups. Accordingly, it does not represent the full ideals of any one point of view. But it does represent progress in this often-contentious area of public policy debate. Taken as a whole, this bill improves the current system of financing for federal campaigns, and therefore I have signed it into law.” [Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; White House, 3/27/2002]
'Soft Money' Ban - The ban on so-called “soft money,” or “nonfederal contributions,” affects contributions given to political parties for purposes other than supporting specific candidates for federal office (“hard money”). In theory, soft money contributions can be used for purposes such as party building, voter outreach, and other activities. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates for federal office, but they can give soft money to parties. Via legal loopholes and other, sometimes questionable, methodologies, soft money contributions can be used for television ads in support of (or opposition to) a candidate, making the two kinds of monies almost indistinguishable. The BCRA bans soft money contributions to political parties. National parties are prohibited from soliciting, receiving, directing, transferring, and spending soft money. State and local parties can no longer spend soft money for any advertisements or other voter communications that identify a candidate for federal office and either promote or attack that candidate. Federal officeholders and candidates cannot solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend soft money in connection with any election. State officeholders and candidates cannot spend soft money on any sort of communication that identifies a candidate for federal office and either promotes or attacks that candidate. [Legal Information Institute, 12/2003; ThisNation, 2012]
Defining 'Issue Advertisements' or 'Electioneering Communications' - In a subject related to the soft money section, the BCRA addresses so-called “issue advertisements” sponsored by outside, third-party organizations and individuals—in other words, ads by people or organizations who are not candidates or campaign organizations. The BCRA defines an “issue ad,” or as the legislation calls it, “electioneering communication,” as one that is disseminated by cable, broadcast, or satellite; refers to a candidate for federal office; is disseminated in a particular time period before an election; and is targeted towards a relevant electorate with the exception of presidential or vice-presidential ads. The legislation anticipates that this definition might be overturned by a court, and provides the following “backup” definition: any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which promotes or supports a candidate for that office, or attacks or opposes a candidate for that office (regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates a vote for or against a candidate).
Corporation and Labor Union Restrictions - The BCRA prohibits corporations and labor unions from using monies from their general treasuries for political communications. If these organizations wish to participate in a political process, they can form a PAC and allocate specific funds to that group. PAC expenditures are not limited.
Nonprofit Corporations - The BCRA provides an exception to the above for “nonprofit corporations,” allowing them to fund electioneering activities and communications from their general treasuries. These nonprofits are subject to disclosure requirements, and may not receive donations from corporations or labor unions.
Disclosure and Coordination Restrictions - This part of the BCRA amends the sections of FECA that addresses disclosure and “coordinated expenditure” issues—the idea that “independent” organizations such as PACs could coordinate their electioneering communications with those of the campaign it supports. It includes the so-called “millionaire provisions” that allow candidates to raise funds through increased contribution limits if their opponent’s self-financed personal campaign contributions exceed a certain amount.
Broadcast Restrictions - The BCRA establishes requirements for television broadcasts. All political advertisements must identify their sponsor. It also modifies an earlier law requiring broadcast stations to sell airtime at its lowest prices. Broadcast licensees must collect and disclose records of purchases made for the purpose of political advertisements.
Increased Contribution Limits - The BCRA increases contribution limits. It also bans contributions from minors, with the idea that parents would use their children as unwitting and unlawful conduits to avoid contribution limits.
Lawsuits Challenge Constitutionality - The same day that Bush signs the law into effect, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the BCRA (see December 10, 2003). [Legal Information Institute, 12/2003]

Entity Tags: Russell D. Feingold, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, National Rifle Association, George W. Bush, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously holds that provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) violate the First Amendment in the case of a nonprofit, unincorporated organization called SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow collects contributions from individuals, but not corporations, and attempted to collect contributions in excess of what FECA allows. In late 2007, SpeechNow asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if its fundraising plans would require it to register as a political committee, and the FEC responded that the law would require such registration, thus placing SpeechNow under federal guidelines for operation and fundraising. In February 2008, SpeechNow challenged that ruling in court, claiming that the restrictions under FECA were unconstitutional. FECA should not restrict the amount of money individuals can donate to the organization, it argued, and thusly should not face spending requirements. It also argued that the reporting limits under FECA are unduly burdensome. The district court ruled against SpeechNow, using two Supreme Court decisions as its precedents (see January 30, 1976 and December 10, 2003), and ruled that “nominally independent” organizations such as SpeechNow are “uniquely positioned to serve as conduits for corruption both in terms of the sale of access and the circumvention of the soft money ban.” SpeechNow appealed that decision. The appeals court reverses the decision, stating that the contribution limits under FECA are unconstitutional as applied to individuals. The reporting and organizational requirements under FECA are constitutionally valid, the court rules. The appeals court uses the recent Citizens United ruling as justification for its findings on contribution limits (see January 21, 2010). [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] The FEC argued that large contributions to groups that made independent expenditures could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders,” but Chief Judge David Sentelle, writing for the court, retorts that such arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” Stephen M. Hoersting, who represents SpeechNow, says the ruling is a logical and welcome extension of the Citizens United ruling, stating, “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010] Taken along with another court ruling, the SpeechNow case opens the way for the formation of so-called “super PACs,” “independent expenditure” entities that can be run by corporations or labor unions with monies directly from their treasuries, actions that have been banned for over 60 years (see 1925 and June 25, 1943). The New York Times will later define a super PAC as “a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions, and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate—as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.” Super PACs are not required by law to disclose who their donors are, how much money they have raised, and how much they spend. CNN will later write, “The high court’s decision allowed super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that monitors campaign finance practices, later writes that the laws underwriting Super PACs “prevent… voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; OpenSecrets (.org), 2012; CNN, 3/26/2012; New York Times, 5/22/2012]

Entity Tags: Stephen M. Hoersting, New York Times, Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, OpenSecrets (.org), David Sentelle, CNN, SpeechNow (.org)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). [Source: Gabe Skidmore / Telestial State (.com)]Senator Mike Lee (R-UT)‘s “leadership PAC,” the Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC (CCFPAC), writes to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to ask for permission to collect unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions, and individual donors for independent spending on behalf of other candidates. So-called “leadership PACs” are political committees set up and run by members of Congress, and other elected officials, to allow them to make contributions to other candidates and spend money on their behalf. It is a well-established method for Congressional members to build influence within their parties. The CCFPAC’s lawyers argue that there is no danger of other candidates being corrupted, because CCFPAC’s spending to help candidates get elected (or to attack their opponents) will be independent of those candidates. The request cites the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates. Law professor Richard Hasen will argue that such a contention—that a candidate will not be corrupted because the spending on his or her behalf—is specious, and moreover, another danger exists, that of the corruption of the head(s) of the leadership PAC. He will write, “Corporations or labor unions (acting through other organizations to shield their identity from public view) could give unlimited sums to an elected official’s leadership PAC, which could then be used for the official to yield influence with others.” Any member of Congress could use his or her leadership PAC to effectively become the fundraising arm of their party, Hasen will write, merely by funneling all the money through that leadership PAC. Hasen argues that the McCain-Feingold ban on such “soft money” collections (see March 27, 2002) was not set aside by Citizens United, though he will cite a single sentence of the majority opinion in that decision as being a possible means of giving the CCFPAC request a veneer of legal justification: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” That sentence, Hasen will argue, “which denies the reality that large independent spending favoring a candidate can sometimes corrupt or create the appearance of corruption, looks like it may doom those soft-money rules too. The result of all this is that federal campaign finance law is unraveling even faster than pessimists expected after Citizens United.” [PAC, 10/17/2011 pdf file; Slate, 10/25/2011] Think Progress legal analyst Ian Millhiser will agree with Hasen, writing that “[i]n essence, Lee just sought permission to set up his own slush fund, powered by unlimited corporate donors, and use this slush fund to buy influence with his fellow lawmakers by running ads in their districts.… So Lee’s idea is that corporate CEOs, Wall Street tycoons, and other well-moneyed interests can show up at his office and turn over completely unlimited amounts of funds. Lee can then buy new friends in Washington and in state governments by channeling these corporate funds to an army of grateful politicians. And the more money corporate America gives him, the more powerful Lee becomes—and the more he owes this new found power to his brand new corporate sugar daddies.” [Think Progress, 10/26/2011]

Entity Tags: Richard L. Hasen, Federal Election Commission, Ian Millhiser, Michael Shumway (“Mike”) Lee, Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) unanimously rejects a petition by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) for him to be allowed to head his own “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010). Lee’s “leadership PAC,” the Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC (CCFPAC), had requested permission from the FEC to turn itself into a PAC capable of accepting donations directly from corporations and unions (see October 17, 2011). Previously, the FEC had released a draft opinion opposing the request, but Lee’s lawyer Dan Backer had said he felt the FEC would approve the request. Lee spokesperson Brian Phillips calls the decision “a head-scratcher.” Backer and Lee had counted on the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and essentially say that if corporations and unions can run super PACs, politicians should be able to do so as well. They argued that because the law bars Lee from spending the money on his own reelection efforts, and because he is willing to pledge that he would not personally solicit large donations, the FEC should grant the request. The draft opinion said that Lee’s request violates campaign finance law that expressly prohibits elected officials from being associated with a political entity that collects money beyond the legal limits (see March 27, 2002), and the unanimous decision echoes that finding. A PAC such as the CCFPAC is limited to collecting $5,000 per person per year and is banned entirely from accepting corporate donations. Lee, a “tea party” favorite, would have been the first politician in the country to have his own super PAC. Commissioner Donald McGahn, the most conservative commissioner and an opponent of most campaign finance laws, told Lee and his legal team: “Your argument essentially does away with contribution limits. It’s well beyond what we do here and well beyond what I do here, which is saying something.” McGahn says he agrees that the government should not discriminate when applying regulations on independent expenditures, but that the statute and regulations clearly limit contributions to members of Congress to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. Lee’s office says that letting Lee run a super PAC of his own would actually increase transparency and accountability. Lee may yet appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. [Salt Lake Tribune, 11/24/2011; Think Progress, 11/28/2011; Deseret News, 12/1/2011]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, Brian Phillips, Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC, Donald McGahn, Michael Shumway (“Mike”) Lee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

According to a Washington Post analysis, 10 percent of US billionaires have given to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney (R-MA), who seems to be securing enough primary wins to be named the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. Romney himself is a former venture capitalist worth at least $250 million. Forty-two of the US’s 412 billionaires have donated to Romney’s campaign and third-party “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011). President Obama has 30 billionaires on his donor list, or something over 7 percent. Romney opponents Rick Perry (R-TX) and Jon Huntsman (R-UT) have 20 and 12, respectively. The Washington Post reports: “Very wealthy donors are likely to play a greater role in this election cycle in the wake of recent court decisions that have loosened rules for campaign contributions (see January 21, 2010). That will only heighten one of the dominant narratives of the 2012 campaign: the nation’s rising income inequality and the outsize political influence of the super-wealthy.” Donors can only give $5,000 directly to candidates’ campaigns, but under the Citizens United ruling, they can give unlimited amounts to super PACs that run independent ads on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates. “The only limit on the resources is the willingness of the donors to give,” says government professor Anthony Corrado, a former Democratic official. “It doesn’t take long to transfer $500,000 from one account to another.” Obama had a head start in raising campaign funds going into October 2010, largely because the Republican candidates were spending money against one another in primary battles. But now that Romney seems more and more assured as the Republican nominee, Republican donors are expected to focus on donating to his campaign and super PACs, and are expected to catch up to and surpass Obama and the Democrats in short order (see August 2, 2010, September 20, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, May 5, 2011, and August 4, 2011). In 2008, Obama distanced his campaign from third-party donors, and donations from those individuals and interests were relatively down. But, perhaps recognizing the advantage Republicans have in raising money from the wealthy, Obama no longer objects to those donations. Romney’s largest donor so far is hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, who has given $1 million to Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future (see June 23, 2011). Think Progress’s Travis Waldron notes that Paulson made millions by shorting the housing market before the mortgage collapse that sparked the global financial crisis and drove the US economy into a recession. Other billionaires supporting Romney include Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, California real estate developer Donald Bren, and developer and publisher Sam Zell. Several billionaires who used to support Romney’s primary opponent Newt Gingrich (R-GA), including casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Amway founder Richard DeVos, are expected to begin giving generously to the Romney campaign or to his super PAC. Obama’s richest donor is Len Blavatnik, a Russian-American industrialist who has also donated to Romney. Other billionaires supporting Obama include insurance magnate Peter Lewis, former Google executive Eric Schmidt, and venture capitalist John Doerr. Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt downplays the billionaire contributions, saying, “Our campaign is fueled by donations from more than 1 million Americans, 98 percent of which were in amounts of $250 or less.” Corrado says that as the November elections approach, spending will only increase. “One of the things about large investors in campaigns is that they’re very interested in getting results,” he says. “And it is much easier to get a large effect in a race if you can give to directly advocate for and against a candidate.” [Washington Post, 12/1/2011; Think Progress, 12/6/2011]

Entity Tags: Dan Snyder, Sam Zell, Sheldon Adelson, Washington Post, Willard Mitt Romney, Anthony J. Corrado Jr., 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Ben LaBolt, Restore Our Future, Richard DeVos, Newt Gingrich, James Richard (“Rick”) Perry, Eric Schmidt, Donald Bren, Peter Lewis, Mitt Romney presidential campaign (2012), John Paulson, Barack Obama, Len Blavatnik, Jon Huntsman, John Doerr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) tells MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd that wealthy donors should be able to give unlimited amounts directly to candidates in lieu of donating to “independent” organizations such as super PACs (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011). The US history of campaign finance law (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), including the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), has always put stringent limitations on what donors can contribute directly to candidates. Asked if he thinks the Citizens United decision was a poor one, Romney responds: “Well, I think the Supreme Court decision was following their interpretation of the campaign finance laws that were written by Congress. My own view is now we tried a lot of efforts to try and restrict what can be given to campaigns, we’d be a lot wiser to say you can give what you’d like to a campaign. They must report it immediately and the creation of these independent expenditure committees that have to be separate from the candidate, that’s just a bad idea.” Ian Millhiser, a senior legal analyst for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, responds: “It’s not entirely clear from this interview that Romney understands what happened in Citizens United. That decision emphatically did not follow any ‘interpretation of campaign finance laws that were written by Congress.’ Rather, Citizens United threw out a 63-year-old federal ban on corporate money in politics.… [I]t was not a case of judges following the law. More importantly, however, Romney’s proposal to allow wealthy donors to give candidates whatever they’d ‘like to a campaign’ is simply an invitation to corruption (see October 17, 2011). Under Romney’s proposed rule, there is nothing preventing a single billionaire from bankrolling a candidate’s entire campaign—and then expecting that candidate to do whatever the wealthy donor wants once the candidate is elected to office. Romney’s unlimited donations proposal would be a bonanza for Romney himself and the army of Wall Street bankers and billionaire donors who support him, but it is very difficult to distinguish it from legalized bribery.” Millhiser notes that Romney had a different view on the subject in 1994, saying then that when you allow special interest groups to buy and sell candidates, “that kind of relationship has an influence on the way that [those candidates are] going to vote.” [Think Progress, 12/21/2011]

Entity Tags: Willard Mitt Romney, Charles David (“Chuck”) Todd, Ian Millhiser

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), a 2008 presidential contender, speaks on Fox News about his dislike for “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011) and what he calls their corrosive effect on US politics. Huckabee says that the pretense of super PACs’ independence from the candidates they support is untrue and debilitating. He objects to the way that such groups allow candidates to pretend to stay above the fray while unidentifiable “snipers from the trees,” meaning the super PACs, run negative attack ads against opponents, calls super PACs “one of the worst things that ever happened in American politics,” and says they have “killed civility.” Huckabee advocates for greater transparency, saying anyone who gives money to fund attack ads should have to put their name on them. He says in part: “I think one of the worst things that ever happened in American politics is the rise of the independent expenditure groups that really don’t have accountability. You don’t know where this money is coming from. You don’t know where the accountability is coming from, and the candidates have no coordination.… I wish that every person who gives any money [to fund an ad] that mentions any candidate by name would have to put their name on it and be held responsible and accountable for it. And it’s killing any sense of civility in politics because the cheap shots that can be made from the trees by snipers that you never can identify. It’s just the worst part of this process.” [Think Progress, 1/3/2012] Liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus writes a column the same day that agrees with much of what Huckabee says (see January 3, 2012).

Entity Tags: Ruth Marcus, Mike Huckabee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Author and columnist Steven Rosenfeld writes that the big winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses is likely not any of the Republican presidential candidates, but the “independent” super PACs (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011) that dominated spending in that state during the primary campaign (see January 3, 2012). Rosenfeld calls super PACs “satellite political campaigns that supposedly act independently of the candidates,” but patently do not. The process has become predictable, Rosenfeld writes: the candidate’s campaign, stating the candidate’s name as “approv[ing] this message,” airs positive, uplifting ads, while the super PAC working with that candidate airs a barrage of negative ads that slam other candidates while never stating the candidate being supported. “And then the candidates hypocritically decry their mudslinging allies,” Rosenfeld writes. Some of the Republican campaign ads were critical of the super PAC attacks on their candidates. Iowa citizen Jill Jepsen told a reporter: “Oh goodness. I just don’t listen to it. I can’t listen to it. It makes me sick.” Super PACs are required by law to report their donors, but their lawyers have been successful in filing papers to push back filing deadlines until after early primaries. Rosenfeld writes, “Such intentional secrecy means the handful of big money donors behind these groups—there were 264 registered PACs as of last week, with assets of $32 million—will not be accountable to anyone other than their candidate of choice.” The super PACs have plenty of money for later primaries, according to information from the Center for Responsive Politics. Rosenfeld cites recent remarks by law school professor Kendall Thomas, who told an audience that in his opinion, super PACs are a perfect representation of “the face of American capitalism.” The Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) would, in Rosenfeld’s description of Thomas’s words, “unleash outsized and unaccountable players into the American political arena… just as globalization has ushered large corporate players into the international economic order.” Thomas said, “We need to contest the vision of politics, and the vision of politics embraced in Citizens United, which views citizenship and constitutional democracy as part of the world of commodities.” Rosenfeld concludes: “[T]he losers in the Iowa caucuses are not just the Republicans with the fewest supporters. They are that state’s voters—and voters in the primary and caucus states to follow—who will experience a political process increasingly distant from their lives.” [AlterNet, 1/4/2012]

Entity Tags: Kendall Thomas, Steven Rosenfeld, Jill Jepsen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The Republican National Committee (RNC) files a court brief calling the federal ban on direct corporate donations to candidates unconstitutional, and demanding it be overturned. Such direct donations are one of the few restrictions remaining on wealthy candidates wishing to influence elections after the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). The brief is in essence an appeal of a 2011 decision refusing to allow such direct donations (see May 26, 2011 and After). The RNC case echoes a request from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that he be allowed to form and direct his own super PAC (see November 23, 2011), and recent remarks by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) calling for donors to be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts to candidates (see December 21, 2011). The RNC brief claims: “Most corporations are not large entities waiting to flood the political system with contributions to curry influence. Most corporations are small businesses. As the Court noted in Citizens United, ‘more than 75 percent of corporations whose income is taxed under federal law have less than $1 million in receipts per year,’ while ‘96 percent of the 3 million businesses that belong to the US Chamber of Commerce have fewer than 100 employees.’ While the concept of corporate contributions evokes images of organizations like Exxon or Halliburton, with large numbers of shareholders and large corporate treasuries, the reality is that most corporations in the United States are small businesses more akin to a neighborhood store. Yet § 441b does not distinguish between these different types of entities; under § 441b, a corporation is a corporation. As such, it is over-inclusive.” Think Progress legal analyst Ian Millhiser says the RNC is attempting to refocus the discussion about corporate contributions onto “mom and pop stores” and away from large, wealthy corporations willing to donate millions to candidates’ campaigns. If the court finds in favor of the RNC, Millhiser writes: “it will effectively destroy any limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals or corporation[s] can give to candidates. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. For this reason, a Wall Street tycoon who wanted to give as much as a billion dollars to fund a campaign could do so simply by creating a series of shell corporations that exist for the sole purpose of evading the ban on massive dollar donations to candidates” (see October 30, 2011). [United States of America v. Danielcytk and Biagi, 1/10/2012 pdf file; Think Progress, 1/11/2012] The RNC made a similar attempt in 2010, in the aftermath of Citizens United; the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of its rejection. [New York Times, 5/3/2010; Tom Goldstein, 5/14/2012] Over 100 years of US jurisprudence and legislation has consistently barred corporations from making such unlimited donations (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003). Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, RNC lawyer James Bopp Jr. confirmed that this case, like the Citizens United case and others (see Mid-2004 and After), was part of a long-term strategy to completely dismantle campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010).

Entity Tags: Republican National Committee, Halliburton, Inc., ExxonMobil, Ian Millhiser, Michael Shumway (“Mike”) Lee, Willard Mitt Romney, US Supreme Court, US Chamber of Commerce, James Bopp, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the second Bush administration, writes that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the subsequent flood of corporate money into the political campaign continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, and January 10, 2012) are good for American politics. [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] According to a 2008 press report, Smith co-founded the CCP in 2006 in order to roll back campaign finance regulations, claiming that virtually any regulation is bad for politics. Smith has refused to reveal the financial sponsors that gave him the “seed money” to start the organization. Smith helped win the landmark SpeechNow case (see March 26, 2010) that allowed for the creation of “super PACs,” the organizations that are primarily responsible for flooding the campaign with corporate money. According to law professor Richard Hasen, Smith and the CCP have worked diligently to bring cases like the SpeechNow case to the Supreme Court so that the conservative-dominated Court can “knock them out of the park.” [Politico, 8/12/2008] Smith now writes: “Super PACs are not an evil tolerated under the First Amendment—they are what the First Amendment is all about. A super PAC, after all, is simply a group of citizens pooling resources to speak out about politics.” He claims that super PACs merely “leveled the playing field” after Democrats and Democratic-supporting organizations consistently outfunded Republican campaigns during elections. Super PACs have kept the presidential campaigns of candidates such as Rick Santorum (R-GA—see February 16-17, 2012) and Newt Gingrich (see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) alive. Smith predicts that Democrats will easily outspend Republicans again once the presidential primary campaign concludes (see Around October 27, 2010), November 1, 2010 and May 5, 2011), but says, “Super PACs, however, will help level the field.” Smith claims that super PACs “disclose all of their expenditures and all of their donors,” and claims that any information to the contrary is wrong, as it is “confusing super PACs with traditional nonprofits such as the NAACP or the Sierra Club.” He concludes: “Super PACs are helping to shatter the old, established order, create more competition, and break the hold of special interests lobbyists—big business actually joined the ‘reform’ community in opposing super PACs in court. Are super PACs harming politics? Of course not. How odd that anyone would think that more political speech was bad for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] The Citizens United decision specifically allows for donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010).

Entity Tags: Rick Santorum, Center for Competitive Politics, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Newt Gingrich, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

US Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer appear during a presentation before the South Carolina Bar, and take questions about the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Scalia was in the majority of that 5-4 decision, and Breyer was in the minority. Scalia refuses to take responsibility for the transformation of the US political system after the decision (see January 21-22, 2010, August 2, 2010, September 20, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, May 5, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, December 6, 2011, December 19, 2011, and January 6, 2012), saying that the Court merely decides whether laws and policies are legal under the Constitution. Elected lawmakers are the ones who must change things, he says, and the voters who often reward the candidates who spend the most money. “If the system seems crazy to you, don’t blame it on the Court,” Scalia says. Besides, Scalia says, voters are free to turn off the television or the radio if they do not like the barrage of political advertisements being presented by the array of “independent” super PACs that have grown up in the wake of the decision (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, and January 4, 2012). “I don’t care who is doing the speech—the more the merrier,” he says. “People are not stupid. If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.” For his part, Breyer does not directly criticize the decision, but notes that America must respect the decisions handed down by the judiciary, and briefly summarizes both sides of the argument. “There are real problems when people want to spend lots of money on a candidate… they’ll drown out the people who don’t have a lot of money,” he says. [Associated Press, 1/21/2012] Ian Millhiser, a constitutional law expert writing for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, writes that “Scalia’s attempt to shift blame is, frankly, ridiculous.” The US campaign finance system was anything but perfect before Citizens United, he writes, but Congress banned corporate money in politics 65 years ago (see June 23, 1947). That ban was in place until the Court overturned it in its decision. And in the wake of the Citizens United decision, a lower court declared that “independent expenditures” could be made on an essentially unlimited basis (see March 26, 2010). Millhiser shows that of the top 20 spenders in the 2012 election, 17 are conservatives and Republicans, and thusly, the Republicans who control the US House and wield outsized influence in the Senate will not move to repair a system that patently favors their party: “Republican lawmakers are more than smart enough to figure this out, and that gives them all the incentive they need to block any attempt to fix the mess Citizens United created.” [Think Progress, 1/23/2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, Ian Millhiser, Stephen Breyer

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the George W. Bush administration, writes a second editorial for US News and World Report defending “super PACs,” the “independent” political entities responsible for infusing millions of dollars into the political campaign system. Smith wrote an editorial in January 2012 defending super PACs, claiming they are the direct outgrowth of First Amendment free-speech rights and are actually good for the campaign system (see January 13, 2012). However, as in his first editorial, Smith makes a number of false claims to bolster his arguments. Such organizations were created in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the following SpeechNow.org decision (see March 26, 2010). He notes, correctly, that until 1974 there were no federal restrictions on super PACs, apparently referring to that year’s amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (see 1974), though he fails to note that such organizations did not exist until after the SpeechNow decision. He claims that “[t]here is no evidence that super PACs have led to a greater percentage of negative ads” than in earlier presidential campaigns, though he cites no evidence to that effect. He also claims, as he did in the first editorial, that it is false to claim super PACs “spend ‘secret’ money. This is just not true. By law, super PACs are required to disclose their donors. There are groups that have never had to disclose their donors, non-profits such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and the NRA. If you want more disclosure, super PACs are a step forward.” Unfortunately, the Citizens United decision specifically allows donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). As in the first editorial, Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010). He also claims that super PACs increase competition—“level the playing field,” as he wrote in the first editorial—by allowing Republican candidates to equal the spending of their Democratic opponents. In reality, Republicans have outstripped Democrats in outside, super PAC spending since the Citizens United decision (see Around October 27, 2010, November 1, 2010, and May 5, 2011). Smith bolsters his claim by citing direct campaign spending as offsetting “independent” super PAC spending, such as in the 2010 US House race involving incumbent Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who won re-election even after a $500,000 super PAC-driven effort on behalf of his challenger. DeFazio, Smith claims, “outspent his opponent by a sizable margin and won. Still, for the first time in years he had to campaign hard for his constituents’ support. That’s a good thing.” He cites the presidential campaigns of Republican contenders Newt Gingrich (R-GA—see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) and Rick Santorum (R-PA—see February 16-17, 2012), which have relied on the contributions of a very few extraordinarily wealthy contributors to keep their candidacies alive against the frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA), whose own super PAC funding is extraordinary (see June 23, 2011). And, he writes, super PAC spending “improves voter knowledge of candidates and issues. Indeed, political ads are frequently a better source of information for voters than news coverage.” The most important benefit of the two Court decisions and the subsequent influx of corporate money into the US election continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, January 10, 2012, and January 23, 2012), he writes, “is that they get government out of the business of regulating political speech. Who would say that you can’t spend your own time and money to state your own political beliefs? Vindicating that fundamental First Amendment right is good for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 2/17/2012]

Entity Tags: Newt Gingrich, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Center for Competitive Politics, Peter DeFazio, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Willard Mitt Romney, Federal Election Commission, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Author and political science professor Richard Hasen provides data showing that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) is directly responsible for a huge rise in corporate “outside” spending on behalf of political campaigns. Recent arguments in defense of the decision have said that “super PACs,” the “independent” political entities that take corporate, labor union, and individual donations for the purpose of making television ads in support of, or opposition to, a particular candidate or party (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, and February 20, 2012) were not created by the Court’s decision, and therefore Citizens United cannot be held responsible for the enormous surge in spending since the decision was rendered. The arguments equate older “527” organizations (see 2000 - 2005, March 2000 and After, and June 30, 2000) and the enormous donations made on their behalf (see January - November 2004) with the activities of super PACs after the Citizens United decision. “The purpose of the drumbeat appears to be to insulate the Supreme Court from further criticism of the Frankenstein’s monster they’ve created,” Hasen writes. He shows that the two types of organizations—527s and super PACs—are quite different. “It is true that before Citizens United people could spend unlimited sums on independent advertising directly supporting or opposing candidates,” Hasen explains. “But that money had to be spent by the individual directly. It could not be given to a political action committee, which had an individual contribution cap of $5,000 and could not take corporate or union funding. In many cases, wealthy individuals did not want to spend their own money on advertising, which would say, ‘Paid for by Sheldon Adelson’ or ‘Paid for by George Soros,’ so fewer of these ads were made. The only way to avoid having your name plastered across every ad was to give to the 527s, which claimed they could take unlimited money from individuals (including, sometimes, corporate and labor union money) on grounds that they were not PACs under the FEC’s definition of PACs. These organizations were somewhat successful, but a legal cloud always hung over them.” After Citizens United, courts and the Federal Election Commission ruled that super PACs could collect unlimited sums from corporations, unions, and individuals for unlimited independent spending. Hasen writes: “The theory was that, per Citizens United, if independent spending cannot corrupt, then contributions to fund independent spending cannot corrupt either. (I am quite critical of this theory about corruption, but that’s besides the point here.) So what was once of questionable legality before the court’s decision was fully blessed after Citizens United.” Using data from the Center for Responsive Politics and its OpenSecrets (.org) Web site, Hasen compares spending during presidential election years.
bullet 1992: Wealthy individuals, organizations, and corporations are allowed to spend unlimited sums (see January 30, 1976). Outside spending in that campaign, up through early March 1992, was about $1.5 million.
bullet 2000: The law remains essentially unchanged. By March 2000, outside spending was around $2.6 million.
bullet 2004: With the advent of “527” groups, by March 2004, outside spending rose to $14 million.
bullet 2008: Under similar conditions as 2004, by March 2008, outside spending rose to $37.5 million.
bullet 2012: In the first presidential campaign year after the Citizens United decision, spending as of early March 2012 is over $88 million.
2012 outside spending is at 234 percent of 2008 spending, and 628 percent of 2004 outside spending. Hasen writes, “If this was not caused by Citizens United, we have a mighty big coincidence on our hands.” Hasen expects outside spending to rise dramatically once the Republican primary is concluded and the presumptive Republican nominee begins campaigning against President Obama. “Wait until the super PACs and other organizations start raising their unlimited sums for the general election,” Hasen warns. “Further, lots of groups are now using 501(c) organizations rather than super PACs for their campaign spending, in an effort to hide their donors.” Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that during the 2010 midterm elections, spending from groups that used the law to hide their donors rose from 1 percent in 2006 to 47 percent. Moreover, “501(c) non-profit spending increased from 0 percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 42 percent in 2010.” And 72 percent “of political advertising spending by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006.” The record-breaking spending in the 2008 presidential election—$301 million—was eclipsed in the first post-Citizens United election, the 2010 midterms, when corporate and other outside spending topped out at $304.6 million. Hasen writes: “It was an incredible number for a midterm election season. Why did that happen? Citizens United was decided early in 2010.” [Slate, 3/9/2012]

Entity Tags: Sheldon Adelson, Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics, Barack Obama, George Soros, US Supreme Court, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) writes an article for the Stanford Law Review discussing the dominance of “big money” in the nation’s elections in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), documenting his belief that the rise in small-donor contributions that put Democrats in office in 2006 and 2008 led to the Citizens United backlash, and calling for sweeping campaign finance reform. Feingold writes, “Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.” Feingold heads Progressives United, an advocacy group that pushes for the overturning of the Citizens United decision and campaign finance legislation.
Background - Feingold gives the background of campaign finance reform in America: the 1907 Tillman Act which banned corporations from spending their money in elections (see 1907), which he says was spurred by the realization that “corporate influence corrupts elections”; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended the Tillman ban to labor unions (see June 23, 1947); and more recent legislation, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), which Feingold co-authored with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). “And for several election cycles, between 2004 and 2008, our system seemed headed towards more fair and transparent elections,” he writes. “But Citizens United changed everything.” The “road to corruption” in modern elections, he says, began when Democrats in the early 1990s began exploiting a loophole in finance regulation that allowed the creation of “soft money” groups (see January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, and December 10, 2003) that allowed parties to solicit unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. “This system was corrupting,” Feingold writes. “Senators would solicit gigantic, unregulated contributions from the same corporations that had legislation pending on the Senate floor. Both parties were guilty.” The BCRA plugged the “soft money” loophole. Even as the BCRA began to reform campaign finance practices, Feingold writes, “the same corporate interests that fought McCain-Feingold set to work to dismantle it. In what was clearly an orchestrated effort by opponents of campaign reform (see January 25, 2010), a group called Citizens United produced a movie savaging the record of then-Senator Clinton (see January 10-16, 2008). Ostensibly intended to educate the public about conservative concerns regarding Clinton’s run for the presidency, the film was little more than a legal vehicle to challenge some of the common-sense restrictions enacted by the BCRA (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). Specifically, the creators of the film sought to challenge the BCRA’s requirement that electioneering communications—commonly known as ‘phony issue ads’ that attack a candidate in the days before the election, but don’t explicitly advocate voting for or against that candidate—be subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution limits as other campaign ads.” The case was argued on narrow grounds about a specific provision of the BCRA, but the Court’s conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, “manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result” (see May 14, 2012). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion, “[F]ive justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” The ruling, Feingold writes, “created a framework for corruption parallel to ‘soft money.’” Instead of “soft money” organizations, Citizens United led to the creation of the “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, January 13, 2012, and February 20, 2012). It has also called into doubt the legitimacy of US elections themselves, due to the “increasing skepticism about the campaign finance system.” Many voters now believe “that the average participant’s small contribution is irrelevant, and that the average person’s vote is grossly outweighed by the gigantic contributions now allowed.”
Internet Politics and Small-Donor Contributions - In part due to the BCRA, Feingold writes, “[f]or three election cycles, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, our system of campaign financing began to take shape in a way that channeled citizen participation and provided incentive for candidates to turn to the democratic support of online activists and small-dollar contributors.” He cites the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean (D-VT), who went on to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as the first powerful instance of “online organizing,” using the Internet to garner millions of dollars in small donations from individual citizens. In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (D-IL) pushed the Dean innovation even further. The Obama campaign “raised a historic amount in small-dollar contributions,” Feingold writes, and created an online platform to engage supporters. All told, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online.
An Ineffective FEC - By 2008, he writes, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was completely impotent. The agency “has been fatally flawed since the time of its creation—any administrative law professor will point out that a law enforcement commission with an even number of commissioners [six] is probably designed specifically not to enforce the law at all,” he writes. By 2008, the FEC only had two seated commissioners, and in effect was not enforcing campaign laws whatsoever. Even after eventually receiving a full complement of commissioners, he writes, the agency “remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law.”
2012: Corporations Trump Citizens - In 2012, corporate contributions far outweigh small-dollar donations by individuals. “[T]he most prominent actors in the 2012 election cycle are unnamed corporations and a small group of influential—primarily conservative—billionaires.” Seventy percent of registered voters think super PACs should be illegal, according to polls, and the favorability rating of the Court has dropped a significant amount. Overall, Feingold writes, the public is firmly against the Citizens United paradigm of campaign finance. He advocates strong legislation from Congress, fixing the “broken system of presidential public financing,” and replacing the “dysfunctional” FEC “with a true enforcement agency.” The ultimate repair of campaign finance lies with the Court, he says, noting that the Court has a chance to do some early repair with the Montana case it is now considering (see June 25, 2012). Regardless of what the Court does or does not do in the Montana case, he concludes, “[t]oday’s framework for corruption cannot stand.” [Stanford Law Review, 6/14/2012]

Entity Tags: Howard Dean, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Citizens United, Hillary Clinton, Russell D. Feingold, Federal Election Commission, John McCain, John G. Roberts, Jr, Stanford Law Review, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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