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In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974), amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) provide the option for full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public expenditures for presidential nominating conventions. The amendments also set spending limits on presidential primaries and general elections as well as for House and Senate primaries. The amendments give some enforcement provisions to previously enacted spending limits on House and Senate general elections. They set strict spending guidelines: for presidential campaigns, each candidate is limited to $10 million for primaries, $20 million for general elections, and $2 million for nominating conventions; Senatorial candidates are limited to $100,000 or eight cents per eligible voter, whichever is higher, for primaries, and higher limits of $150,000 or 12 cents per voter for general elections; House candidates are limited to $70,000 each for primaries and general elections. Loans are treated as contributions. The amendments create an individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a candidate per election and a PAC (political action committee) contribution limit of $5,000 to a candidate per election (this provision will trigger what the Center for Responsive Politics will call a “PAC boom” in the late 1970s). The total aggregate contributions from an individual are set at $25,000 per year. Candidates face further restrictions on how much personal wealth they can contribute to their own campaign. The 1940 ban on contributions from government employees and contract workers (see 1940) is repealed, as are the 1971 limitations on media spending. Perhaps most importantly, the amendments create the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee and administer campaign law. (Before, enforcement and oversight responsibilities were spread among the Clerk of the House, the Secretary of the Senate, and the Comptroller General of the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), with the Justice Department responsible for prosecuting violators (see 1967).) The FEC is led by a board of six commissioners, with Congress appointing four of those commissioners and the president appointing two more. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are designated nonvoting, exofficio commissioners. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ) Part of the impetus behind the law is the public outrage over the revelations of how disgraced ex-President Nixon’s re-election campaign was funded, with millions of dollars in secret, illegal corporate contributions being funneled into the Nixon campaign. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Geraci 2006 )
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) hands down an “advisory opinion” that, according to the mandates of the newly passed amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see 1974), allows corporations to spend general funds on solicitation of donations from stockholders and employees. The case stems from an attempt by Sun Oil Corporation to solicit employees, both union and non-union, for contributions to the corporation’s PAC, SUN PAC. The FEC’s advisory opinion, which by law is binding, reads in part, “It is the opinion of the Commission that Sun Oil may spend general treasury funds for solicitation of contributions to SUN PAC from stockholders and employees of the corporation.” The FEC’s reasoning is that the money is to be segregated according to the Supreme Court’s Pipefitters decision (see June 22, 1972), businesses have for years solicited their employees for both political and non-political causes, and FECA says that contributions to a separate segregated fund may not be secured by “job discrimination” or “financial reprisals.” Neither Congress nor the unions are pleased with the ruling. If corporations had been restricted to soliciting only their stockholders, they could have solicited only twice as many individuals as the labor unions, but with the ruling in place, corporations effectively can now solicit virtually the entire workforce of the nation. It is this decision that in part sparks the “PAC boom” among corporate PACs, which sees the number and funding of corporate PACs increase dramatically. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)
The Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, filed by Senator James L. Buckley (R-NY) and former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) against the Secretary of the Senate, Francis R. Valeo, challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) on free-speech grounds. The suit also named the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a defendant. A federal appeals court validated almost all of FECA, and the plaintiffs sent the case to the Supreme Court. The Court upholds the contribution limits set by FECA because those limits help to safeguard the integrity of elections. However, the court overrules the limits set on campaign expenditures, ruling: “It is clear that a primary effect of these expenditure limitations is to restrict the quantity of campaign speech by individuals, groups, and candidates. The restrictions… limit political expression at the core of our electoral process and of First Amendment freedoms.” One of the most important aspects of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that financial contributions to political campaigns can be considered expressions of free speech, thereby allowing individuals to essentially make unrestricted donations. The Court implies that expenditure limits on publicly funded candidates are allowable under the Constitution, because presidential candidates may disregard the limits by rejecting public financing (the Court will affirm this stance in a challenge brought by the Republican National Committee in 1980).
Provisions of 'Buckley' - The Court finds the following provisions constitutional:
Limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office;
Disclosure and record-keeping provisions; and
The public financing of presidential elections.
However, the Court finds these provisions unconstitutional:
Limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees, except for presidential candidates who accept public funding;
The $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures;
The limitations on expenditures by candidates from their personal funds; and
The method of appointing members of the FEC, holding that as the method stands, it violates the principle of separation of powers.
In May 1976, following the Court’s ruling, the FEC will reconstitute its board with six presidential appointees after Senate confirmation. (Federal Elections Commission 3/1997; Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ; Casebriefs 2012)
No Clear Authors - The opinion is labeled per curiam, a term usually reserved for brief and minor Court decisions when authorship of an opinion is less relevant. It is unclear exactly which Justices write the opinion. Most Court observers believe Justice William Brennan writes the bulk of the opinion, but Brennan’s biographers will later note that sections of the opinion are authored by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Potter Stewart, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. The opinion is an amalgamation of multiple authors, reflecting the several compromises made in the resolution of the decision. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Criticism of 'Buckley' - Critics claim that the ruling enshrines the principle of “money equals speech.” The ruling also says that television and radio advertisements that do not expressly attack an individual candidate can be paid for with “unregulated” funds. This leads organizations to begin airing “attack ads” that masquerade as “issue ads,” ostensibly promoting or opposing a particular social or political issue and avoiding such words as “elect” or “defeat.” (National Public Radio 2012) In 1999, law professor Burt Neuborne will write: “Buckley is like a rotten tree. Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.” Neuborne will write that his preference goes towards reasonable federal regulations of spending and contributions, but “any change would be welcome” in lieu of this decision, and even a completely deregulated system would be preferable to Buckley’s legal and intellectual incoherence. (Liptak 5/3/2010) In 2011, law professor Richard Hasen will note that while the Buckley decision codifies the idea that contributions are a form of free speech, it also sets strict limitations on those contributions. Calling the decision “Solomonic,” Hasen will write that the Court “split the baby, upholding the contribution limits but striking down the independent spending limit as a violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and association.” Hasen will reflect: “Buckley set the main parameters for judging the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions for a generation. Contribution limits imposed only a marginal restriction on speech, because the most important thing about a contribution is the symbolic act of contributing, not the amount. Further, contribution limits could advance the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The Court upheld Congress’ new contribution limits. It was a different story with spending limits, which the Court said were a direct restriction on speech going to the core of the First Amendment. Finding no evidence in the record then that independent spending could corrupt candidates, the Court applied a tough ‘strict scrutiny’ standard of review and struck down the limits.” (Hasen 10/25/2011) In 2012, reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin will call it “one of the Supreme Court’s most complicated, contradictory, incomprehensible (and longest) opinions.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) passed by Congress after the controversial Buckley ruling by the Supreme Court (see January 30, 1976) bring FECA into conformity with the Court’s decision. The amendments repeal expenditure limits except for presidential candidates who accept public funding, and revise the provisions governing the appointment of commissioners to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The amendments also limit the scope of PAC fundraising by corporations and labor unions. The amendments limit individual contributions to national political parties to $20,000 per year, and individual contributions to a PAC to $5,000 per year. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ) However, the Constitution restricts what Congress can, or is willing, to do, and the amendments are relatively insignificant. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)
The federal government passes even more amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The new amendments simplify campaign finance reporting requirements, encourage political party activity at the state and local levels, and increase the public funding grants for presidential nominating conventions. The new amendments prohibit the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from conducting random campaign audits. They also allow state and local parties to spend unlimited amounts on federal campaign efforts, including the production and distribution of campaign materials such as signs and bumper stickers used in “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ) The amendment creates what later becomes known as “soft money,” or donations and contributions that are essentially unregulated as long as they ostensibly go for “party building” expenses. The amendments allow corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals to contribute vast sums to political parties and influence elections. By 1988, both the Republican and Democratic Parties will spend inordinate and controversial amounts of “soft money” in election efforts. (National Public Radio 2012) While the amendments were envisioned as strengthening campaign finance law, many feel that in hindsight, the amendments actually weaken FECA and campaign finance regulation. Specifically, the amendments reverse much of the 1974 amendments, and allow money once prohibited from being spent on campaigns to flow again. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)
The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) issues a series of “voter guides” just before Election Day. The pamphlets are later credited as helping persuade voters to cast their ballots for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (R-CA) and a number of Republican Senate candidates. In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will characterize them as “barely concealed works of advocacy,” a form of “electioneering” that federal law bans groups such as NRLC from issuing this close to an election. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) later tries to challenge the pamphlet distribution, and the NRLC wins a First Amendment challenge in court under the legal leadership of general counsel James Bopp Jr. As a result of the court case, Bopp becomes interested in challenging campaign finance restrictions (see January 10-16, 2008) as well as abortion rights. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Supreme Court, in the case of Federal Election Commission v. NCPAC, rules that political action committees (PACs) can spend more than the $1,000 mandated by federal law (see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The Democratic Party and the FEC argued that large expenditures by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in 1975 violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which caps spending by independent political action committees in support of a publicly funded presidential candidate at $1,000. The Court rules 7-2 in favor of NCPAC, finding that the relevant section of FECA encroaches on the organization’s right to free speech (see January 30, 1976). Justice William Rehnquist writes the majority opinion, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lewis Powell, and liberals Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and William Brennan. Justices Byron White and Thurgood Marshall dissent from the majority. (Oyez (.org) 2012; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
The Supreme Court rules in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life that an anti-abortion organization can print flyers promoting “pro-life” candidates in the weeks before an election, and that the portion of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) that bars distribution of such materials to the general public restricts free speech. In September 1978, the Massachusetts Citizens For Life (MCFL) spent almost $10,000 printing flyers captioned “Everything You Need to Vote Pro-Life,” which included information about specific federal and state candidates’ positions on abortion rights, along with exhortations to “vote pro-life” and “No pro-life candidate can win in November without your vote in September.” The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that MCFL’s expenditures violated FECA’s ban on corporate spending in connection with federal elections. A Massachusetts district court ruled against the FEC, finding that the flyer distribution “was uninvited by any candidate and uncoordinated with any campaign” and the flyers fell under the “newspaper exemption” of the law. Moreover, the court found, FECA’s restrictions infringed on MCFL’s freedom of speech (see January 30, 1976 and April 26, 1978). An appeals court reversed much of the district court’s decision, but agreed that the named provision of FECA violated MCFL’s free speech rights. The FEC appealed to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Court affirms that FECA’s prohibition on corporate expenditures is unconstitutional as applied to independent expenditures made by a narrowly defined type of nonprofit corporation such as MCFL. The Court writes that few organizations will be impacted by its decision. The majority opinion is written by Justice William Brennan, a Court liberal, and joined by liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservatives Lewis Powell, Antonin Scalia, and (in part) by Sandra Day O’Connor. Court conservatives William Rehnquist and Byron White, joined by liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, dissent with the majority, saying that the majority ruling gives “a vague and barely adumbrated exception [to the law] certain to result in confusion and costly litigation.” (Federal Election Commission 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
Two Democratic organizations in Ohio file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in the matter of the now-infamous “Willie Horton” ads used to great effect by the Bush re-election campaign (see June-September 1988 and September 21 - October 4, 1988). The complaint alleges that the ostensibly independent political organization that created and financed the first ad, the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), violated the law on independent expenditures (see May 1990 and After). The complaint uncovers numerous connections between NSPAC and the Bush campaign. However, the FEC refuses to charge the Bush campaign with campaign finance violations. (Inside Politics (.org) 1999)
The Ohio Democratic party and a group called Black Elected Democrats of Ohio file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) over the infamous “Willie Horton” campaign ad of 1988 (see September 21 - October 4, 1988), claiming that the “outside” organization that released the ad, the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), violated the law on independent expenditures, and that NSPAC functioned as an arm of the 1988 Bush presidential campaign. According to the complaint, it was legal for NSPAC to expend funds criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and supporting President Bush’s election only if the expenditures were independent and uncoordinated between the two organizations. Any spending that was made “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, his authorized political committees, or their agents,” represented an illegal “in-kind contribution” in excess of federal contribution limits. The FEC conducts an investigation into the relationship between NSPAC and the Bush campaign. The investigation uncovers several ties between the two organizations. For example, Larry McCarthy, the NSPAC media consultant who, as a top marketing expert for the NSPAC’s “Americans for Bush” organization, created the Horton ad, worked for top Bush campaign adviser Roger Ailes; McCarthy was a former senior vice president of Ailes Communications, Inc. (ACI), which functioned as the main media consulting firm for the Bush campaign. McCarthy tells investigators he worked at ACI until January 1987, but continued to work with ACI on “a contractual basis” until December 1987, when he began working as Senator Robert Dole (R-KS)‘s media consultant. McCarthy admits to having a number of contacts with Ailes during the Bush-Dukakis campaign, but says some of them were “of a passing social nature,” such as “running into one another in restaurants or at airports.” He denies discussing “anything relative to the Bush presidential campaign, NSPAC, or political matters.” McCarthy’s story is contradicted by Ailes, who tells the FEC that he had talked to McCarthy twice about opportunities to work for the Bush campaign, opportunities Ailes says McCarthy lost by working for NSPAC. The FEC also discovers that another former ACI employee, Jesse Raiford of Raiford Communications, worked on the Horton ad, and while doing so “simultaneously received compensation from NSPAC and the Bush campaign.” Raiford also “expended NSPAC funds for the production of the Willie Horton ad.” Though there is clear evidence of illegal connections and complicity between the Bush campaign and NSPAC, the FEC’s Board of Commissioners deadlock 3-3 on voting whether to bring formal charges against the two organizations. The swing vote, commissioner Thomas Josefiak, says the explanations from Ailes and McCarthy about their lack of substantive contacts during the campaign “were plausible and reasonably consistent.” Josefiak says both were guilty of “bad judgment” and may have acted “foolish[ly],” but did nothing warranting legal action. The FEC also determines that Raiford only “performed technical tasks” for the two organizations, “and played no role in any substantive or strategic decisions made by either organization.” The commissioners conclude that neither organization violated campaign finance law. (Inside Politics (.org) 1999)
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), or the “Motor Voter” Bill, signed into law by President Clinton, increases opportunities for voter registration. It particularly impacts minority and low-income voters. The NVRA requires states to provide for voter registration by mail, to allow voters to register when they receive driver’s licenses, and to allow voter registration at state agencies such as welfare and unemployment offices. The NVRA provides for the Justice Department to use federal courts to ensure compliance, and gives the Federal Election Commission (FEC) the responsibility of helping the 50 states develop mail-in voter registration forms. (In 2002, that responsibility will be shifted to the Election Assistance Commission under the Help America Vote Act—see October 29, 2002.) The NVRA takes effect on January 1, 1995, in all but six states—Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—because they have no voter registration requirements, or they have election-day registration at polling places. Arkansas, Vermont, and Virginia are given extra time to comply with the NVRA because they need to modify their state constitutions. Many states, including California, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, will refuse to comply with the NVRA, and the resulting court cases will establish the constitutionality of the NVRA, and the Justice Department will order the states to drop their objections and comply with the act. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; US Department of Justice 2012)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Committee. The case originated with advertisements run by the Colorado Republican Party (CRP) in 1986 attacking the Colorado Democratic Party’s likely US Senate candidate. Neither party had yet selected its candidate for that position. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) sued the CRP’s Federal Campaign Committee, saying that its actions violated the “party expenditure provision” of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) by spending more than the law allows. The CRP in turn claimed that FECA violated its freedom of speech, and filed a counterclaim. A Colorado court ruled in favor of the CRP, dismissing the counterclaim as moot, but an appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court rules 7-2 in favor of the FEC. The decision is unusual, lacking a clear majority, but being comprised of a “plurality” of concurrences. The majority opinion, such as it is, is authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court liberals, and is joined by fellow liberal David Souter and conservative Sandra Day O’Connor. Conservatives Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia go farther than Breyer’s majority decision, writing that the provision violates the First Amendment when it restricts as a “contribution” a political party’s spending “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with a candidate.” In yet another concurrence, conservative Clarence Thomas argues that the entire provision is flatly unconstitutional. Liberals John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissent, agreeing with the appeals court. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) In 2001, the Court will revisit the case and find its initial ruling generally sound, though the later decision will find that some spending restrictions are constitutional. In the revisiting, four of the Court’s five conservatives will dissent, with the liberals joined by O’Connor. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
A number of political action committees, or PACs (see 1944, February 7, 1972, 1975, and November 28, 1984), created by “independent” organizations inform the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that they will not disclose the names of donors or amounts of funds raised, because they are not expressly advocating for or against any individual candidate. These PACs become known as “527 groups,” based on Section 527 of the federal tax code. Congress soon passes a disclosure mandate forcing PACs to reveal their donors and information about their fundraising and expenditures (see June 30, 2000). By 2005, many PACs begin registering themselves as 501(c)4 “advocacy nonprofit” organizations. Under the law, such groups can only conduct certain “political advocacy” activities, but in return do not have to disclose their contributors or information about their financing. (National Public Radio 2012)
The presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) files a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging improper campaign contributions by two of the biggest financial backers of McCain’s rival presidential primary contender, Governor George W. Bush (R-TX). The backers, Texas billionaires Charles and Sam Wyly, spent $2.5 million on television ads airing in New York, Ohio, and California created by a group called “Republicans for Clean Air” (RFCA—see March 2000 and After). McCain’s campaign alleges that the Bush campaign illegally coordinated its efforts with RFCA to air the ads in the days before critical primary elections. Bush has denied any knowledge of the ads, and has said his campaign had no contact with the group. McCain’s complaint notes that Charles Wyly has already contributed the maximum amount allowed by law and holds an official position in the Bush campaign. McCain says at a campaign rally in California, “We ask Governor Bush to do what he refused to do, tell his sleazy Texas buddies to stop these negative ads and take their money back to Texas where it belongs, and don’t try to corrupt American politics with your money.” The McCain campaign also files an emergency complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which McCain oversees as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, asserting that the advertisements violate the Communications Act by failing to properly identify the true sponsor. The FCC declines to intervene. Bush campaign spokesperson Karen Hughes says McCain’s complaints are “irresponsible” and “shameful. He should be ashamed. He has not one shred of evidence. The governor has personally said our campaign did not coordinate, our campaign knew nothing about the ad until a member of the media asked us about the ad, and Senator McCain should be ashamed of tossing around scurrilous accusations like that.” (Purdum and Mitchell 3/7/2000) The FEC will vote not to investigate the complaint. (Scott E. Thomas and Danny Lee McDonald 4/2002)
The leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity as a CIA officer by conservative columnist Robert Novak (see July 14, 2003) has resulted in the exposure of a CIA front company, potentially causing widespread damage to overseas intelligence gathering. Yesterday, Novak revealed the name of the firm in another column (see October 2, 2003). The fictitious Boston firm, Brewster Jennings & Associates, appears in Federal Election Commission records on a 1999 form filled out by Plame Wilson when she donated $1,000 to the presidential campaign of Al Gore (D-TN). Once the Novak column was published, CIA officials admitted that it is a front. Brewster Jennings is listed as Plame Wilson’s employer on her 1999 tax forms, though she was working as an undercover CIA officer at the time. A former diplomat says that since Brewster Jennings and Plame Wilson have been exposed, every foreign intelligence service is running the names through their own databases to determine whether she ever visited their countries and what kinds of contacts she made there. “That’s why the agency is so sensitive about just publishing her name,” the former diplomat says. (Pincus and Allen 10/4/2003)
Plame's NOC Status, 'Legend' - As one of a very small, select number of “nonofficial cover” officers, Plame Wilson would have enjoyed little or no government protection had her cover been blown while she was overseas. Training officers such as her cost millions of dollars and require elaborate constructions of fictional background, called “legends,” including the creation of CIA front companies such as Brewster Jennings. The amount of damage caused by the outing of Plame Wilson and Brewster Jennings is incalculable. Former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro says many other CIA agents and foreign assets are now endangered, and future attempts to convince foreign citizens to share information with US intelligence agencies will be hampered. Former CIA and State Department official Larry Johnson, who trained with Plame Wilson in 1985, says that when the damage is fully assessed, “at the end of the day, [the harm] will be huge and some people potentially may have lost their lives.” Johnson describes himself as “furious, absolutely furious” at the breach. “We feel like the peasants with torches and pitchforks,” he says. “The robber barons aren’t going to be allowed to get away with this.” Former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, who also trained with Plame Wilson, agrees: “This is not just another leak. This is an unprecedented exposing of an agent’s identity.” While the CIA continues to keep details of Plame Wilson’s career secret, it is known that she was attached to a US embassy in Europe in 1990 and 1991 (more information on her overseas postings will later be revealed—see Fall 1985, Fall 1989, Fall 1992 - 1996, and April 2001 and After). It is known that when Novak blew her cover, she was a senior case officer for the CIA’s counterproliferation division, working with intelligence about hostile countries and WMD. “All the people who had innocent lunches with her overseas or went shopping or played tennis with her, I’m sure they are having heart attacks right now,” says one former colleague who was also in covert operations. “I would be in hiding now if I were them.” (Leiby and Priest 10/8/2003; Strobel 10/11/2003)
Brewster Jennings Just One of Plame Wilson's Cover Firms - Former intelligence officials confirm that Brewster Jennings was just one of several cover affiliations that Plame Wilson used when she was operating overseas. “All it was was a telephone and a post office box,” says one former intelligence officer. “When she was abroad she had a more viable cover.” (Kerber and Bender 10/10/2003) Cannistraro will later add that when Plame Wilson was operating undercover outside the US, she would have had a real job with a more legitimate company. The Boston company “is not an indicator of what she did overseas.” Now, those firms are themselves in jeopardy of exposure for working with US intelligence. (Wilson 2007, pp. 343-344) In 2007, former CIA and National Security Council official Bruce Riedel will say: “I have looked at the part of her CV that is in the open domain. The agency spent an awful lot of effort building a really good cover for this person. A lot of effort. People who say this was not a covert operative don’t understand what they’re saying. This was intended to be a nonofficial cover person who would have the credentials to be a very serious operative. The damage done to the mission of the organization by exposing her, and how cover is built, is pretty serious.” (Wilson 2007, pp. 343)
The Supreme Court rules in the case of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The case addresses limitations on so-called “soft money,” or contributions to a political party not designated specifically for supporting a single candidate, that were imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), often known as the McCain-Feingold law after its two Senate sponsors (see March 27, 2002). A three-judge panel has already struck down some of McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on soft-money donations, a ruling that was stayed until the Court could weigh in. Generally, the Court rules that the “soft money” ban does not exceed Congress’s authority to regulate elections, and does not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The ruling is a 5-4 split, with the majority opinion written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens and his conservative colleague Sandra Day O’Connor. The opinion finds that the “minimal” restrictions on free speech are outweighed by the government’s interest in preventing “both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and… the appearance of corruption” that might result from those contributions. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” the justices write, and the government must take steps to prevent corporate donors from finding ways to subvert the contribution limits. The majority is joined by liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, and the four other conservatives on the court—Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—dissent. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003; Oyez (.org) 2011) The case represents the consolidation of 11 separate lawsuits brought by members of Congress, political parties, unions, and advocacy groups; it is named for Senator Mitch McConnell, who sued the FEC on March 27, 2002, the same day the bill was signed into law. Due to the legal controversy expected to be generated by the law and the need to settle it prior to the next federal election, a provision was included in the BCRA that provided for the case to be heard first by a special three-judge panel and then appealed directly to the Supreme Court. This District of Columbia district court panel, comprised of two district court judges and one circuit court judge, was inundated with numerous amicus briefs, almost 1,700 pages of related briefs, and over 100,000 pages of witness testimony. The panel upheld the BCRA’s near-absolute ban on the usage of soft money in federal elections, and the Supreme Court agrees with that finding. However, the Court reverses some of the BCRA’s limitations on the usage of soft money for “generic party activities” such as voter registration and voter identification. The district court overturned the BCRA’s primary definition of “noncandidate expenditures,” but upheld the “backup” definition as provided by the law. Both courts allow the restrictions on corporate and union donations to stand, as well as the exception for nonprofit corporations. The Court upholds much of the BCRA’s provisions on disclosure and coordinated expenditures. The lower court rejected the so-called “millionaire provisions,” a rejection the Supreme Court upholds. A provision banning contributions by minors was overturned by the lower court, and the Court concurs. The lower court found the provision requiring broadcasters to collect and disclose records of broadcast time purchased for political activities unconstitutional, but the Court disagrees and reinstates the requirement. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003) McConnell had asked lawyer James Bopp Jr., a veteran of anti-campaign finance lawsuits and the head of McConnell’s James Madison Center for Free Speech, to take part in the legal efforts of the McConnell case. However, before the case appeared before the Supreme Court, McConnell dropped Bopp from the legal team due to a dispute over tactics. (Kirkpatrick 1/25/2010) The 2010 Citizens United decision will partially overturn McConnell (see January 21, 2010).
David Bossie (see May 1998), the head of the conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU), accuses liberal filmmaker Michael Moore of improper involvement in the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Moore and the production company Lions Gate have released a new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, that is highly critical of the Bush administration (see June 25, 2004). Bossie says the film’s commercials, airing on network and cable television, are little more than campaign commercials devised to attack President Bush and assist Kerry. One commercial shows Bush on the golf course, talking about terrorism. In the clip, Bush tells a group of reporters, “We must stop these terrorist killers,” then turns his back, hefts his golf club, and says, “Now watch this drive.” The New York Times writes that “[t]he scene is one of many featured in the film that paint the president as cavalier, cynical, and insincere in the war against terrorism.” Republicans have for the most part ignored the film until recently, when ads for the film began drawing what they consider unwarranted attention. Bossie says: “There’s only a very small percentage of Americans that are going to go and see this movie. A much larger number are going to be bombarded by these political ads run by Michael Moore, potentially all the way through the election.” CU has run ads supportive of Bush (see (May 11, 2004)). Bossie has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that agency to classify the film’s ads as political, and restrict their broadcast according to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003). The law says that if found to be political, the ads must not be aired within 30 days of the start of the Republican National Convention on August 30. Legal experts say the FEC is unlikely to rule on the complaint for months, and even if the agency finds the ads to be political, the film could qualify for an exemption from the restrictions for news and commentary. Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate says, “If we are still running television ads [by July 30], we will make certain that they are in full compliance with any and all regulations.” If they must remove Bush from the ads to remain in compliance, Ortenberg says “we can market this film without him.” Ortenberg denies that the ads have any political agenda. (Rutenberg 6/27/2004) After Lions Gate agrees not to show ads for the film after July 30, the FEC will dismiss the complaint (see August 6, 2004).
After the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), also known as the McCain-Feingold law after its original sponsors, and the 2003 McConnell Supreme Court decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), corporations and labor unions are prohibited from airing ads that attack candidates but avoid specific language that turns the ads from general commercials into “campaign” ads within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a federal election. Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) comes to anti-abortion and anti-campaign finance lawyer James Bopp Jr. (see November 1980 and After) with a dilemma. The WRTL wants to run ads attacking Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), a powerful advocate of abortion rights, for his record of opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees. It intends to use the ads as campaign attack ads against Feingold, but skirt the BCRA’s restrictions by not specifically discouraging votes for him, thereby giving the appearance of “issue” ads and thusly not running afoul of the BCRA. Bopp is worried that the McConnell decision, just rendered, would make the Court reluctant to reverse itself so quickly. Bopp knows that the McConnell decision was in response to a broad challenge to the BCRA that argued the law was unconstitutional in all circumstances. Bopp decides to challenge the BCRA on behalf of the WRTL on narrower grounds—to argue that the specific application of the BCRA in this instance would violate the group’s First Amendment rights. He decides not to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) because of that agency’s notoriously slow response time, but instead files a preemptive challenge in court objecting to the BCRA’s ban on “issue advertisements” in the weeks before elections. Bopp is encouraged by the prospects of a court challenge that may wend its way to the Supreme Court, as the “swing” vote in McConnell was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been succeeded by the more conservative Samuel Alito (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). (Toobin 5/21/2012) Bopp will prove to be correct, as the Supreme Court will find in WRTL’s favor (see June 25, 2007).
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) dismisses the complaint “Citizens United v. Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.” The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see (May 11, 2004)) had complained to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that liberal documentarian Michael Moore released a movie, Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), that was so critical of the Bush administration that it should be considered political advertising. If the movie is indeed political advertising, under federal law it cannot be shown within 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election. The FEC dismisses the complaint, finding no evidence that the movie’s advertisements had broken the law. The movie’s distributors, Lions Gate, assure the FEC that they do not intend to advertise the movie during the time periods given under the law. (Federal Election Commission 8/6/2004; Moneyocracy 2/2012) In the aftermath of the FEC decision, CU leaders Floyd Brown (see September 21 - October 4, 1988) and David Bossie will decide that they can do what Moore did, and decide to make their own “documentaries.” Bossie realized after Fahrenheit 9/11 aired that it, and the television commercials promoting it, served two purposes—attacking President Bush and generating profits. Having already conducted an examination of the career of former First Lady Hillary Clinton (D-NY), now a sitting senator with presidential aspirations, the organization will decide to make its first “feature film” about her (see January 10-16, 2008). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the conservative lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United (CU) to advertise on television its upcoming film Celsius 41.11—The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die, a documentary that the group intends as a refutation of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), a film by liberal documentarian Michael Moore that savaged the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks. The FEC also refuses to allow CU to pay to run the film on television. The FEC bases its decision on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold—see March 27, 2002), and its restrictions on nonprofit groups such as CU using unregulated contributions to pay for “electioneering communications” to be shown within 60 days of a federal general election. CU would broadcast the film in late September, less than 60 days before the November 2 elections. CU argued, unsuccessfully, that it is a member of the news media and therefore can use a legal exemption provided for news, commentary, and editorial content. In a 4-0 vote, the FEC rejects the argument, saying that CU intends to buy air time instead of being paid to provide content, and that its primary function is as an advocacy group and not a film production organization. FEC vice chair Ellen L. Weintraub, one of the commission’s three Democrats, says: “You don’t want a situation where people are airing campaign commercials and they are exempt from commission rules because they are considered a media event. The danger is that the exemption swallows the rules.” CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he is “clearly disappointed” with the ruling, and adds, “They [the FEC] want to limit free speech, and that’s what this issue is about for us.” The company marketing Fahrenheit 9/11 was not allowed to run advertisements promoting the film within 60 days of the elections, and a CU complaint against that film was dismissed after its distributors promised not to air such advertisements (see August 6, 2004). CU has helped fund the publication of a book by Bossie attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA), and has released numerous documentaries attacking the Clinton administration and the United Nations. The current film contains some material attacking Kerry, though that material is not the primary focus of the film. Bossie says the group will attempt to show the film in theaters to paying audiences within a few weeks (see September 27-30, 2004). (Justice 9/9/2004; Tierney 9/30/2004)
The conservative lobbying and advocacy group Citizens United (CU) releases a documentary intended as a refutation of the popular documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 (see June 25, 2004), a film by liberal documentarian Michael Moore that savaged the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks. The CU film is entitled Celsius 41.11—The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die. CU spent six weeks making the film, and is releasing it in small venues around the nation after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) denied the organization permission to broadcast it on television (see September 8, 2004). (In August, the FEC dismissed a complaint against Moore over Fahrenheit 9/11 filed by CU—see August 6, 2004.) The slogan for the movie is “The Truth Behind the Lies of Fahrenheit 9/11!” The movie was written and produced by Lionel Chetwynd, who has written and produced a number of Hollywood feature films and documentaries. Chetwynd, a vocal conservative, produced the September 2003 “docudrama” 9/11: Time of Crisis, which portrayed President Bush as a near-action hero during and after the 9/11 attacks, and took significant liberties with the actual events (see September 7, 2003). Of this film, Chetwynd says: “We could have gone wall to wall with red meat on this, but we purposely didn’t. The cheap shots may be entertaining in Moore’s film, but we wanted to make the intellectual case and go beyond lecturing to the converted.” New York Times reporter John Tierney describes the movie as overtly intellectual, sometimes appearing more as a PowerPoint presentation than a film made to appeal to a wider audience. It features a point-by-point defense of Bush’s actions during the 9/11 attacks, and features “politicians, journalists, and scholars discoursing on the legality of the Florida recount in 2000, the Clinton administration’s record on fighting terrorism, and the theory of American exceptionalism.” There are a few “red meat” moments, Tierney notes, including the juxtaposition of the Twin Towers burning as Moore says in a voiceover, “There is no terrorist threat.” It also includes a few slaps against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA), mostly in the form of a country song where the singer Larry Gatlin sings, “John boy, please tell us which way the wind’s blowing,” a reference to the Bush campaign’s attempt to portray Kerry as a “flip-flopper” who goes back and forth in his views on various issues. The Georgetown premiere of the movie attracts some 300 viewers, almost all Republicans, according to Tierney. The audience, according to Tierney, views the film as more “thoughtful and accurate” than Moore’s film, and unlikely to make anywhere near the profits the earlier film garnered. Chetwynd says he resisted the temptation to launch an all-out assault on Kerry “the way that Moore did with Bush.” Filmgoer Jerome Corsi, who has written a bestselling book attacking Kerry’s Vietnam record, praises the film, as does Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the airplane that was flown into the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001 (see 8:51 a.m.-8:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). Burlingame, a founder of a group of 9/11 victim relatives that supports Bush, says: “Michael Moore actually used footage of the Pentagon in flames as a sight gag. It was really hard to sit there in the theater listening to people laugh at that scene knowing my brother was on that plane. I wish more people would see this film instead.” (Tierney 9/30/2004) In October, the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott will dismiss the film as “generat[ing] heat but no new light,” calling it “sad in a sad sort of way… dull, lazy, and inconsistent,” and suffused with an “unabashed idolatry of the Great Leader (in this case, George W. Bush)” in the same way that Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl made her documentaries (he wonders, “Has the conservative worldview really been reduced to a slavish worship of authority?”). Kennicott will ask if the film is an attempt to refute Moore’s documentary or an “overlong attack ad on John Kerry,” and concludes that the film is little more than a combination of “dreadful political advertisements and dreadful political talk shows.” (Kennicott 10/22/2004) TV Guide’s Maitland McDonagh will call the film a “shrill, repetitive screed” obviously released just in time to influence the 2004 presidential election, and bearing “all the hallmarks of having been thrown together in a heated rush.” (McDonagh 10/2004)
Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), an “astroturf” advocacy organization funded by the Koch brothers (see 1984 and After), is accused of breaking campaign laws to support the Bush re-election campaign. Oregon’s CSE branch had attempted to get consumer advocate Ralph Nader on the presidential ballot, in an attempt to dilute Democratic support for presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA). Critics argue that it is illegal for a tax-exempt organization such as CSE to donate its services for partisan purposes. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) dismisses a complaint brought against the organization. (Mayer 8/30/2010)
The Supreme Court, ruling in the Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission case, finds that some political advertisements can be exempted from the “electioneering communications” provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act (see March 27, 2002). The case stems from attempts by an anti-abortion advocacy group, Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), to run ads asking viewers to contact their senators and urge them to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees. WRTL tried to run its ads during the 30 and 60-day “blackout” periods before the upcoming 2004 elections, but because it accepted corporate contributions and was itself incorporated, the McCain-Feingold restrictions prevented the ads from running. WRTL argued that the ads were not targeting candidates, but were strictly issue-related (see Mid-2004 and After). The case was initially dismissed, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the lower courts. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) argued that the ads were intended to influence US Senate elections in Wisconsin, and thusly should be regulated by McCain-Feingold. A district court disagreed, ruling against the FEC and finding that the ads were “protected speech” (see January 30, 1976), though it limited its findings solely to the WRTL ads and specified that its ruling was not to apply to other cases. The FEC appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision finds that the district court’s ruling is valid. Chief Justice John Roberts writes the majority opinion, which establishes broad exemptions for advertisements that could be “reasonably” interpreted as being about legislative issues and not directed on behalf of, or against, a particular candidate. As long as “issue ads” do not contain the “functional equivalent” of express advocacy for or against a candidate, the Roberts opinion holds, and the advertisements are legal. The ads involve “core political speech” that is protected by the First Amendment, Roberts finds: “We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.” Justice David Souter writes the dissenting opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas write a concurring opinion that joins them with Roberts and the other two conservative justices, but in their concurrence, they say they would overturn the McCain-Feingold law in its entirety. (Geraci 2006 ; Savage 6/26/2007; FindLaw 2011; National Public Radio 2012; Oyez (.org) 7/1/2012) Roberts is careful in the language of his majority opinion, writing that “the First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” He does not directly advocate for the overturning of the McCain-Feingold law, but referring to the 2003 McConnell decision that upheld the law (see December 10, 2003), he writes, “We have no occasion to revisit that determination today.” In 2012, reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write of Roberts’s use of the word “today,” “To those who know the language of the Court, the Chief Justice was all but announcing that five justices would soon declare the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional.” (Toobin 5/21/2012) Toobin is referring to the 2010 Citizens United decision that will overturn most of the law (see January 21, 2010).
The conservative lobbying group Citizens United (CU—see May 1998 and (May 11, 2004)) releases a film entitled Hillary: The Movie. The film is a lengthy diatribe attacking the character and career of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Large portions of the film are comprised of conservative critics launching attacks against the personalities and character of Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) says he based his film on a documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004 by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore (see August 6, 2004), and calls it “a rigorously researched critical biography” comparable to the material presented on political talk shows such as Meet the Press. (Barnes 3/15/2009; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Bossie intended for the film to be released in late 2007 and impact the 2008 race in the same way that he believes Fahrenheit 9/11 impacted the 2004 race. A cable company made the film, at a cost of $1.2 million, available for free to viewers on “video on demand.” Bossie also scheduled a small theater run for the film, but his primary focus was always cable television and the accompanying television advertisements. Knowing the film will probably run afoul of campaign law, he hired lawyers, first James Bopp Jr. (a former member of the far-right Young Americans for Freedom—YAF—and the former general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee—see November 1980 and After) (Toobin 5/21/2012) and later Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under the Bush administration. Olson will later say the film is “a critical biographical assessment” that provides “historical information about the candidate and, perhaps, some measure of entertainment as well.” The New York Times calls it “a scathingly hostile look at Mrs. Clinton” replete with “ripe voice-overs, shadowy re-enactments, and spooky mood music.” The film also contains interviews and material from mainstream media reporters, and interviews with figures such as former CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a “tell-all” book about the Clinton administration, and with Kathleen Willey, who has claimed that Bill Clinton once made an unwelcome sexual advance towards her. Reviewer Megan Carpentier of Radar Online will trounce the movie, saying that it “scrolls through more than a decade of press clippings and a treasure trove of unflattering pictures in its one-sided romp” and will advise potential viewers to watch it “while inebriated in the manner of your choosing, and only if you don’t pay $10 for the privilege.” (Liptak 3/5/2009) Bossie claims the movie has nothing to do with the impending primary elections. CU intends to show the movie in a small number of theaters but primarily on “video on demand” cable broadcasts, with accompanying television advertisements. In return for a $1.2 million fee, a cable television consortium has agreed to make the movie freely available to its customers as part of what CU calls its “Election ‘08” series. (CU has another negative documentary on Clinton’s Democratic challenger Barack Obama in the works—see October 28-30, 2008—but apparently has no plans to air any documentaries on Republican candidate John McCain or any other Republican presidential candidates.) However, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refuses to allow the film to be aired on cable channels, or advertised for theater release, because the FEC considers the film “electioneering” and thus subject to campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002) restrictions. Moreover, the film and its planned distribution are funded by corporate donations. (United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012) Bossie claims the film takes no position on Clinton’s candidacy, and says that if he had to vote between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he would vote for Clinton. (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Court Fight - Bopp, CU’s original lawyer, decides to pursue the same general aggressive course that he took in a recent successful Supreme Court campaign finance case, the Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) decision (see Mid-2004 and After). The Hillary film was envisioned from the outset to serve multiple purposes: to advance conservative ideology, damage Clinton’s presidential chances (despite Bossie’s claims), and generate profits. Bopp knows that the FEC would likely classify the film as a political advertisement and not a work of journalism or entertainment (see August 6, 2004), and therefore would fall under campaign law restrictions. Before the film is officially released, Bopp takes the film to the FEC for a ruling, and when the FEC, as expected, rules the film to be “electioneering communication” that comes under campaign law restrictions, Bopp files a lawsuit with the Washington, DC, federal district court. The court rules in favor of the FEC judgment, denying CU its request for a preliminary injunction against the FEC’s ruling. The court specifically finds that the WRTL decision does not apply in this case. “[I]f the speech cannot be interpreted as anything other than an appeal to vote for or against a candidate, it will not be considered genuine issue speech even if it does not expressly advocate the candidate’s election or defeat,” the court states. The court also questions CU’s statement that the film “does not focus on legislative issues.… The movie references the election and Senator Clinton’s candidacy, and it takes a position on her character, qualifications, and fitness for office.” Film commentator Dick Morris has said of the film that it will “give people the flavor and an understanding of why she should not be president.” The court rules, “The movie is susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” (During arguments, Bopp says that the film is much like what a viewer would see on CBS’s evening news show 60 Minutes, and Judge Royce Lamberth laughs aloud, saying: “You can’t compare this to 60 Minutes. Did you read this transcript?” Other judges find it problematic that one of the film’s central “issues” is its assertion that Clinton is, in Bopp’s words, “a European socialist,” but still claims not to be overtly partisan.) (Mencimer 1/13/2008; United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008; Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012)
Supreme Court Appeal - CU appeals the court’s decision directly to the Supreme Court. Bossie soon decides to replace Bopp with Olson, a far more prominent figure in conservative legal circles. Toobin will write: “Ted Olson had argued and won Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), and was rewarded by President Bush with an appointment as solicitor general. Olson had argued before the Supreme Court dozens of times, and he had a great deal of credibility with the justices. He knew how to win.” (Richard Hasen 1/15/2008; Toobin 5/21/2012)
Previous Attempt - In September 2004, Bossie and CU attempted, without success, to release a similar “documentary” supporting President Bush and attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) on television, just weeks before the presidential election. The FEC turned down the group’s request. The FEC did allow the film to be shown in theaters (see September 8, 2004 and September 27-30, 2004).
'Ten-Year Plan' - Bopp will later reveal that the lawsuit is part of what he will call a “10-year plan” to push the boundaries of campaign finance law, and that he urged Bossie and other CU officials to use the documentary as a “test case” for overturning the body of law (see January 25, 2010).
Republican political strategist Dick Morris falsely claims that “Clinton appointees” on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) are preventing the advocacy group Citizens United (CU) from airing its new documentary, Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). However, the head of CU, David Bossie (see May 1998), says that the organization can indeed show the documentary. Morris, appearing as a guest on Fox News’s Hannity and Colmes, tells co-host Alan Colmes that the FEC “won’t let us run” the film “in movie theaters.” He explains, “The Clinton appointees [on the FEC] are blocking it.” However, Bossie tells a Washington Times reporter, “I can put it in theaters, I just can’t let anybody know it’s there.” The FEC requires CU to comply with disclosure requirements under campaign finance law if it wishes to advertise the movie, a requirement the organization is unwilling to meet. (The day after Morris’s appearance, a court rules that CU must disclose its donors in order to advertise the film—see January 15, 2008.) Morris was originally a producer of the film before stepping away from the project, but has said that he appears in the film as a commentator. (Media Matters 1/16/2008) CU will release the film in theaters the next day (see January 10-16, 2008).
A three-judge panel rules that the conservative advocacy group Citizens United (CU) must agree to reveal the identities of the donors that made its documentary on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton possible, if it intends to advertise the film. The film, entitled Hillary: The Movie, is considered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to be “electioneering,” or the communication of partisan political views, as opposed to a more objective documentary as CU claims. CU challenged the FEC in court in a December 2007 filing, claiming that “issue-oriented television ads are protected by the First Amendment and should not be subject to disclosure requirements under McCain-Feingold campaign finance law,” referring to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). Under the BCRA, partisan political communications such as the CU film are subject to blackout periods in a specific period before elections. The Supreme Court ruled that so-called “issue ads” can be run by partisan political groups such as CU (see Mid-2004 and After), but the FEC has ruled that such “issue ads” must include disclaimers, and the producers of the ads must file reports that name the ads’ contributors. CU is challenging such disclosure requirements, saying that advertisements for the Clinton film are commercial in nature and not political, and therefore protected under the First Amendment from being forced to disclose donor information. The court rules otherwise. (United States District Court for the District Of Columbia 1/15/2008 ; McCain 1/16/2008; Media Matters 1/16/2008)
The Supreme Court dismisses an appeal by the political advocacy group Citizens United (CU) that argued the group’s First Amendment rights had been violated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The Court had agreed to hear CU’s case that it should be allowed to broadcast a partisan political documentary about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Hillary: The Movie, on cable television networks in the days before critical primary elections (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but instead ruled that CU should have filed its case first with the federal appeals court in Washington. The ruling does not dismiss the case entirely, but makes it unlikely that the Court will rule on the campaign law issues surrounding the case (see March 27, 2002) before the November 2008 elections. Lawyer James Bopp, representing CU, says, “It is our intention to get the case expeditiously resolved on the merits in the district court, and then if we are unsuccessful there, to appeal” again to the Court. Bopp accuses Justice Department lawyers of trying to slow down the case to prevent it being resolved before the election. CU also wants to release a similar documentary about the other leading Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008), in a similar fashion to its planned widespread release of the Clinton film. Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court’s more liberal members, says in the order dismissing the appeal that had the case been taken up, he would have affirmed the previous decision in favor of the FEC. None of the other justices made any public statement about the case. The case will be heard by the Washington, DC, federal appeals court. (Richey 3/24/2008) The appeals court will find against CU, and the organization will reapply to the Court for a hearing, an application which will be granted (see March 15, 2009).
The Supreme Court finds in the case of Davis v. Federal Election Commission that part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act (see March 27, 2002) is unconstitutional. Jack Davis (D-NY), a millionaire who has run repeatedly and unsuccessfully as a candidate of both parties to represent New York’s 26th District in the US House of Representatives, has complained in a lawsuit that the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” is unconstitutional. Davis wants to be able to pour his money into the race without his opponents being able to spend more money to counter his donations, as the law enables them to do. The lower courts found against Davis, and under McCain-Feingold the case was expedited directly to the Supreme Court. The Court finds 5-4 in favor of Davis, ruling that the contribution limits unduly restrict Davis’s freedom of speech. Justice Samuel Alito writes the majority opinion, joined by his fellow Court conservatives. Justice John Paul Stevens writes the dissent for the four Court liberals, though Stevens and the others do agree with some aspects of Alito’s majority opinion. Alito’s decision flows directly from an earlier Court precedent (see January 30, 1976). (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)
The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. (Richey 2/1/2008)
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009)
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say 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 will say: “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.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “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.” (Rucker 1/22/2010) CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).
The US Supreme Court says it will schedule a hearing on the controversial “Citizens United” case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (see March 15, 2009), for September 2009, in an unusual second presentation before the Court (see September 9, 2009). According to the justices, the lawyers for both Citizens United (CU) and the federal government should argue whether previous Court rulings upholding federal election law should be overturned based on First Amendment grounds. Both sides are asked to argue whether the Court should overrule the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), which upheld restrictions on corporate spending on political campaigns, and/or the 2003 McConnell decision (see December 10, 2003), which upheld the bulk of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). Law professor Nathaniel Persily says of the directive: “The Court is poised to reverse longstanding precedents concerning the rights of corporations to participate in politics. The only reason to ask for reargument on this is if they’re going to overturn Austin and McConnell.” The New York Times observes, “The Roberts court [referring to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts] has struck down every campaign finance regulation to reach it, and it seems to have a majority prepared to do more.” Previous lower court rulings have found that CU’s attempt to air a film attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was an attempt to engage in “electioneering,” and thus came under the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign law (see March 27, 2002). The film was financed in part by donations from corporations and individuals whom CU has refused to identify. (United Press International 6/29/2009; Liptak 6/29/2009) CU previously attempted to have its case heard by the Court, but the Court sent the case back to a federal appeals court, which ruled in favor of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and against CU (see March 24, 2008). Law professor Richard Hasen agrees with Persily and the Times that the decision to reargue the case a second time indicates that the Court’s conservative majority is prepared to overturn both Austin and McConnell, and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Hasen writes that if the Court does indeed rule in favor of unlimited corporate spending, it will be in response to the fundraising advantage currently enjoyed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL) over his Republican counterpart, John McCain (R-AZ). (Hasen 6/29/2009) The decision will indeed overturn both Austin and McConnell, and gut most of the BCRA (see January 21, 2010).
The second round of arguments in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, and June 29, 2009) is heard by the US Supreme Court. The first round of arguments, which unexpectedly focused on an unplanned examination of government censorship, ended in a 5-4 split, with the majority of conservative justices readying a decision to essentially gut the entire body of federal campaign finance law in the name of the First Amendment (see March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), but an angry dissent by Justice David Souter that accused Chief Justice John Roberts of failing to follow the procedures of the Court in rendering the opinion prompted Roberts to temporarily withdraw the opinion and offer a rare second argument (see May 14, 2012). Newly appointed Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues her first case before the Court. Citizens United, the plaintiff, is represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, a veteran of Court arguments, quickly discerns from the new round of “Questions Presented” that the Court is prepared to not only find in the plaintiff’s favor, but to use the case to render a broad verdict against campaign finance law as a whole. Olson argues cautiously, not wanting to extend the case farther than the Court may desire. The four minority liberal justices, knowing the case is lost, try their best in their questioning to raise awareness in the public once news reports of the arguments are made public. One of those justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asks: “Mr. Olson, are you taking the position that there is no difference” between the First Amendment rights of a corporation and those of an individual? “A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights. So is there any distinction that Congress could draw between corporations and natural human beings for purposes of campaign finance?” Olson replies, “What the Court has said in the First Amendment context… over and over again is that corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment” (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). Ginsburg follows up by asking, “Would that include today’s mega-corporations, where many of the investors may be foreign individuals or entities?” Olson replies, “The Court in the past has made no distinction based upon the nature of the entity that might own a share of a corporation.” Kagan then takes her turn, and begins: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, I have three very quick points to make about the government position. The first is that this issue has a long history. For over a hundred years, Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections, and this Court has never questioned that judgment.” She begins to make her second point before Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative majority, interrupts her. In 2012, author and reporter Jeffrey Toobin will write that Kagan almost certainly knows hers is a legal “suicide mission,” and can only hope that her arguments may sway the Court to narrow its decision and leave some of the existing body of campaign finance law intact. She tells Roberts later in the questioning period, “Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses, if it has to lose, the answer is yes.” Justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior of the liberal minority, attempts to assist Kagan in making her argument, suggesting that the Court should content itself with a narrow ruling, perhaps creating an exception in the McCain-Feingold law (see March 27, 2002) for the plaintiff’s documentary (see January 10-16, 2008) or for “ads that are financed exclusively by individuals even though they are sponsored by a corporation.” Kagan agrees with Stevens’s proposal. Stevens then says: “Nobody has explained why that wouldn’t be a proper solution, not nearly as drastic. Why is that not the wisest narrow solution of the problem before us?” Kagan, with help from Ginsburg, undoes some of the damage done by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart during the first argument, where he inadvertently gave the conservative justices the “censorship” argument by which they could justify a broader verdict. Ginsburg asks: “May I ask you one question that was highlighted in the prior argument, and that was if Congress could say no TV and radio ads, could it also say no newspaper ads, no campaign biographies? Last time, the answer was yes, Congress could, but it didn’t. Is that still the government’s answer?” Kagan replies: “The government’s answer has changed, Justice Ginsburg. We took the Court’s own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully.” Unlike Stewart, Kagan specifically says that the government cannot ban books. But the censorship argument remains. After the arguments, the justices render the same verdict: a 5-4 split favoring Citizens United. Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas vote in the majority, while Ginsburg, Stevens, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor vote in the minority. The second round of questioning, with its much broader scope, gives Roberts and his conservative colleagues the justification they need to render a broad verdict that would gut existing campaign finance law (see January 21, 2010). (Toobin 5/21/2012)
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 ; Liptak 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.” (Savage 1/21/2010; OMB Watch 1/27/2010; Richey and Feldmann 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 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 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. (Toobin 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 ; Liptak 1/21/2010; Savage 1/21/2010; Millhiser 1/21/2010; Sherman 1/21/2010; Richey and Feldmann 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.” (Rucker 1/22/2010)
The Wall Street Journal celebrates the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) as a victory for “free speech” (see January 21, 2010). In an unsigned editorial, the Journal celebrates the decision by stating that the Court used the Constitution to “rescue” the political system from “marauding government” elements, particularly a “reckless Congress.” The Journal claims that the Citizens United case rested on the Federal Election Commission (FEC)‘s refusal to allow the airing of a 90-minute political attack documentary on presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) because the film was “less than complimentary” of her. In reality, the FEC considered the film “electioneering” by the organization that released the film, Citizens United, and prohibited it from being shown on pay-per-view cable access (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court rejected campaign finance law’s limitation on corporate spending, prompting the Journal to state, “Corporations are entitled to the same right that individuals have to spend money on political speech for or against a candidate.” Any other state of affairs, the Journal writes, constitutes censorship. The Journal criticizes President Obama for speaking out against the decision (see January 21, 2010), saying that Obama put “on his new populist facade to call it ‘a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies,’ and other ‘special interests.’ Mr. Obama didn’t mention his union friends as one of those interests, but their political spending will also be protected by the logic of this ruling. The reality is that free speech is no one’s special interest.” The Journal dismisses promises by Congressional Democrats to pass legislation or even bring forth a constitutional amendment limiting corporate donations by stating, “Liberalism’s bullying tendencies are never more on display than when its denizens are at war with the speech rights of its opponents.” The Journal concludes by advocating that the Court overturn its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision (see January 30, 1976) that placed modest limits on corporate spending, in essence advocating the complete deregulation of campaign financing. “The Court did yesterday uphold disclosure rules, so a sensible step now would be for Congress to remove all campaign-finance limits subject only to immediate disclosure on the Internet,” the Journal states. “Citizens United is in any event a bracing declaration that Congress’s long and misbegotten campaign-finance crusade has reached a constitutional dead end.” (Wall Street Journal 1/22/2010)
Author and law professor Jan Witold Baran cheers the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that allows virtually unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in political campaigns (see January 21, 2010). Baran, who alerts readers that he filed an amicus curiae brief with the Court in favor of plaintiff Citizens United, characterizes the ruling as allowing “corporations and unions [to] spend money on political advertising that urges the election or defeat of a candidate for public office.” He cites President Obama’s warning that the decision will unleash a “stampede of special-interest money in our politics” (see January 24, 2010), and derides that warning. He reminds readers that the decision retains the ban on direct contributions by corporations and unions, and that corporations and unions may not “spend money in cahoots with political parties,” but must remain “independent” and not coordinate with candidates or their campaigns. He also tells readers that the decision mandates disclosure, saying that the ruling “upheld the laws that require any corporate or union spender to file reports with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours of spending the first dime.” Because of these retentions, Baran writes, there will be no “stampede of special-interest money.” The ruling will put an end to so-called “issue ads,” Baran predicts (see March 27, 1990 and June 25, 2007), the ads that either support or attack an issue and then urge the viewer to contact their congressperson. Because of the new ruling, the ads can now exhort viewers to vote for one candidate or against another because of the issues. Baran goes on to write, “There is also no factual basis to predict that there will be a ‘stampede’ of additional spending.” Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia already have laws permitting some corporate and union spending, he says, and notes: “There have been no stampedes in those states’ elections. Having a constitutional right is not the same as requiring one to exercise it, and there are many reasons businesses and unions may not spend much more on politics than they already do. As such, the effect of Citizens United on the 2010 campaigns is debatable.” He says that the ruling is primarily a blowback against Congress’s meddlesome penchant to restrict “campaign speech.… Congress interpreted its power to regulate campaigns as a license to limit, restrict, burden, and confuse anyone who wished to engage in political campaigns.” Now, he says, the Court has reminded Congress that the First Amendment trumps its ability to regulate (see January 21, 2010 and January 22, 2010). The ruling is “a breath of fresh air” for everyone except Washington lawyers, Baran says, and concludes: “The history of campaign finance reform is the history of incumbent politicians seeking to muzzle speakers, any speakers, particularly those who might publicly criticize them and their legislation. It is a lot easier to legislate against unions, gun owners, ‘fat cat’ bankers, health insurance companies, and any other industry or ‘special interest’ group when they can’t talk back.” (Baran 1/25/2010; Wiley Rein LLP 2012) Many observers besides Obama predict dire consequences as a result of the Court ruling (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, and January 26, 2010). And unfortunately for Baran’s predictions, a March 2010 appeals court verdict (see March 26, 2010) will join with the Citizens United ruling, particularly a loophole in the ruling (see February 27, 2010), to unleash just the kind of corporate spending that Baran says would never happen.
The retired director of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, writes a detailed editorial in support of the recent Citizens United ruling that opened the way for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited money in campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). The ACLU supported the case throughout its progression (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009), and filed briefs in support of the plaintiff, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Glasser says that the “screaming dismay” that “most liberals” evinced on hearing of the decision was unwarranted. Corporations are still banned from directly contributing to political campaigns, and President Obama’s assertion that the decision “reversed a century of law” is incorrect; the 1907 Tillman Act that banned corporations from contributing to campaigns or candidates is still in effect (see 1907). Instead, Glasser writes, the decision is “a huge victory… for freedom of speech and against government censorship” (see January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, and February 2, 2010). Corporations, he writes, have the same right to speech as individuals, and they exercise that speech by spending money promoting issues and candidates, or criticizing those issues and candidates. He cites two instances in which the ACLU was stopped by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from engaging in “political free speech,” one in 1972 when the FEC stopped the ACLU from taking out an ad in the New York Times criticizing President Nixon’s opposition to school busing to implement integration, and in 1984, when the FEC barred the ACLU from making public statements critical of President Reagan. Both instances took place inside the “window” of time before an election (30 days before a primary, 60 days before a general election) in which such utterances were considered supporting a candidate. Nonprofit groups such as Citizens United have been victimized for decades by campaign finance restrictions, Glasser writes. Later in the article, he derides the idea that restricting or controlling speech creates equality between rich and poor in elections, curbing the propensity for the rich to wield more influence and be heard more broadly than less wealthy citizens or organizations. “Money isn’t speech, but how much money one has always determines how much speech one has,” Glasser writes. “Most if not all of you reading this have never had as much speech as, say, the New York Times or George Soros or Nelson Rockefeller or George Bush or, as we recently discovered in my city, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg. The inequities of speech that flow from the inequities of wealth are certainly a big and distorting problem for a democracy, and have always been so, and not just during elections. No one knows how to remedy that, short of fundamental re-distributions of wealth. But I’ll tell you what isn’t a remedy: granting the government the power to decide who should speak, and how much speech is enough. Nothing but disaster flows from that approach, and that was what was at stake in this case.” He concludes by advocating public financing of elections entirely, writing: “Liberals and Democrats have been the chief offenders… favoring equity in the abstract but never seeing how the particular reforms they advocated made the problems they wished to remedy worse, and never seeing that giving the government the authority to regulate speech was not a good thing. Maybe now this result, which has steamed up liberals and Democrats, may at last shift their attention to the kind of public financing that equitably provides money for more speech instead of pretending to create equity by granting the government the authority to restrict speech. We shall see.” (Glasser 2/3/2010)
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). (Liptak 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.” (Liptak 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.” (Liptak 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission 2012; OpenSecrets (.org) 2012; CNN 3/26/2012; Kavanagh, Slotnik, and Schulten 5/22/2012)
The Target Corporation, owner of Target department stores, donates $150,000 to a fund with close ties to the campaign of Tom Emmer (R-MN), the GOP’s presumptive nominee for Minnesota’s governor, through its federal PAC TargetCitizens. The donation is $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in “brand consulting.” Another Minnesota-based retail chain, Best Buy Co., gives $100,000 to the group MN Forward, which describes itself as “nonpartisan” but only donates money to Emmer. The money is to be used primarily for ads supporting Emmer, a state legislator. The donations are allowable under the controversial Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to give unrestricted amounts to political organizations (see January 21, 2010). Emmer is a controversial candidate with a record of fiery opposition to gay rights and other stances not popular with moderate and liberal voters, and some are talking about organizing a boycott of Target and Best Buy. Target is the primary focus of the criticism, in part because it has promoted itself as a progressive alternative to corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart, according to an official with progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org. A Target spokesperson, Lena Michaud, says the company supports causes and candidates “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives.” TargetCitizens, according to Michaud, donates money to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Though Michaud says Target spreads its donations equally between candidates of the two parties, the $150,000 donation exceeds the amount TargetCitizens has donated in all other federal campaigns this year; Target executives have donated primarily to Republicans as well. Emmer, aside from his opposition to gay rights, favors a strict stance on immigration and has advocated slashing the wages of food service workers, whom he claims often make six-figure incomes when their tips are counted. He also advocates the nullification of some portions of the US Constitution, and wants to nullify the recent health care reform legislative package. In contrast, Target has cultivated a moderate image in Minnesota, making public donations to schools, food shelves, and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, a heavy Republican donor, says his company’s commitment to gay rights is “unwavering.” MN Forward director Brian McClung, who formerly served as spokesman for retiring Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), says: “We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we’re going to run a fair and factual campaign. Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate’s vision for creating jobs.” (Lohn 7/27/2010; Terkel 7/27/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010) Paul Finkelstein, CEO of Regis Corporation, which has also donated to MN Forward, explains that his company, like Target and Best Buy, donates based on economic concerns. “From a social perspective, I don’t agree with many of his platforms,” Finkelstein says. “My concern, frankly, is jobs. We have to have a tax policy that enables us to be able to create jobs.” Emmer wants to institute massive tax cuts, particularly for business owners and the wealthy, if he is elected as governor. Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch Nehring says of the controversy, “We’ve learned from this, and we will thoughtfully review the process we use to make political contributions, to avoid any future confusion.” (Kleefeld 7/30/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010)
Backlash - Local gay-rights organization Twin Cities Pride says it is “reviewing its partnership with Target” in light of the Emmer donations, while another gay-rights organization, OutFront Minnesota, says in a statement: “Emmer stands alone among candidates for governor in opposing equality for GLBT Minnesotans. Target should not stand with him.” OutFront Minnesota director Monica Meyer says, “This is inconsistent with their values to support the only candidate for governor who stands up for discrimination and divisiveness in Minnesota.” Former Democratic campaign worker Laura Hedlund pickets outside a Minnesota Target store, and tells a reporter, “I think Target is making a huge mistake” in donating money to support Emmer. A YouTube video posted by Minnesota citizen and former Target consumer Randi Reitan goes “viral”; in the video, Reitan returns $226 worth of items to a Target store and cuts up her Target credit card, explaining that she wants equality for her gay son, which Emmer, and by extension Target, does not support. Political science professor David Schultz says he is surprised Target would make such a controversial announcement of support: “I thought they would have sat this one out because they are so smart in terms of marketing. Target has had the warm fuzzies with progressives for years.… Now they risk alienating half the state’s population.” Emmer himself complains that his right to freedom of speech is being challenged by the protests against Target, and accuses protesters of demonstrating against him for personal reasons, saying: “The sad part to me is, I thought we were supposed to be able to exercise our rights of free speech. We’re supposed to celebrate the fact that we have different perspectives. And it doesn’t seem like that’s what this is about. This seems to be more personal and we’ve got to get over that.” (Lohn 7/27/2010; Kleefeld 7/30/2010) MN Forward continues to garner significant corporate donations even after the Target backlash. (Scheck 8/5/2010; Caldwell 8/6/2010)
Apology - Days later, Steinhafel issues a public apology for the donation, in an apparent effort to ward off planned boycotts by gay-rights and Democratic groups. Steinhafel writes a letter to Target employees that is made public, claiming that the donation was merely to support economic growth and job creation. He acknowledges that the contribution affected many employees in ways he did not anticipate and says: “[F]or that I am deeply sorry.… The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our culture and our success, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.” Michaud says the company will do what she calls a strategic review of political donations, and plans to lead a discussion on improving gay rights in the workplace. “Our commitment right now is in letting people know that we’ve heard their feedback and we’re really sorry that we’ve let them down,” Michaud says. “We want to continue doing the many things that Target has done as a company to foster our inclusive corporate culture and then look at ways of doing things better in the future.” Meyer says she is glad to hear Steinhafel’s apology, but her group intends to wait and see if Target fulfills its promise to be supportive of gay rights: “People are really appreciating them reiterating that kind of support but they want to make sure that their consumer dollars aren’t going to fund candidates who do the exact opposite of what Target says it wants to promote in society.” Soon after Steinhafel’s apology, Human Rights Campaign, a human rights organization that supports gay rights, says it spoke with Target about contributing $150,000 to a candidate who does support gay rights, but, the organization says, those talks have broken down. Allison Hayward of the Center for Competitive Politics says corporations should view the Target controversy as a cautionary tale. “This is sort of an object lesson for the next time a Sears or a Wal-Mart thinks about getting involved in some political expenditures,” she says. “Large corporations are not generally interested in alienating customers.” (Scheck 8/5/2010; Yang and Eggen 8/19/2010)
Donations to Anti-Gay Candidates Continue - Federal Election Commission (FEC) records released in December 2010 will show that Target continues to donate to anti-gay candidates. (Shakir 12/24/2010)
Policy Change - In February 2011, Target Corporation issues a new policy to tighten oversight and restrict how the firm’s funds are used for political purposes. Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management, one of the companies that filed a shareholder resolution criticizing the donation, says: “This is definitely a trend. More and more companies are stepping up and being transparent about their political spending.” Target still refuses to disclose how much money it donates to trade associations, which are often some of the largest political campaign donors. Target now has a committee tasked with guiding “the decision-making process regarding financial support of political activities,” according to a policy document. (Geiger and Levey 2/19/2011)
Senate Democrats are unable to break a filibuster by Senate Republicans that is blocking passage of the DISCLOSE Act.
Act Would Mandate Disclosure of Donors - The DISCLOSE Act—formally the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act—would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would have created new campaign finance disclosure requirements and made public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. Additionally, all outside groups, including “super PACs,” would have to report the names of donors. Moreover, the legislation would provide for so-called “Stand By Your Ad” requirements mandating that super PACs and other outside campaign groups producing political advertisements disclose the top funders in the ad. The CEO or highest-ranking official of an organization would, under the act, have to appear in the ad and officially “approve” the message. (Open Congress 6/29/2010; OMB Watch 7/24/2012)
Unbreakable Filibuster - Even public support from President Obama fails to sway enough Republican senators to vote against the filibuster, as did changes made to the bill by sponsor Charles Schumer (D-NY) designed to assuage some of Republicans’ concerns about the bill. The bill has already passed the House, shepherded through under Democratic leadership against Republican opposition. Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate also, but Senate rules allow the minority to mount filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome, and a number of Republicans would need to break from the Republican pack to vote down the filibuster. Additionally, some conservative senators such as Ben Nelson (D-NE) have not publicly stated their support for the bill. One Republican who had previously indicated she might vote for cloture (against the filibuster), Susan Collins (R-ME), dashed Democrats’ final hopes by saying she would not vote for cloture after all. “The bill would provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions,” says Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “Senator Collins believes that it is ironic that a bill aimed at curtailing special interests in the election process provides so many carve-outs and exemptions that favor some grass-roots organizations over others. This, too, is simply unfair.” Other so-called Republican moderates such as Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have previously indicated they would not vote for cloture. Ironically, one of the “carve-outs” in the bill Schumer added was on behalf of the far-right National Rifle Association (NRA), an addition that Schumer says was made to placate Republicans. Schumer says that even if the bill does not pass now, attempts to reintroduce it will be made. The DISCLOSE Act “is one of the most important for the future of our democracy, not just for the next six months but for the next six decades,” he says. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says: “I don’t know what the final vote will be tomorrow, but I know that you—if you had a sliver of Republicans that thought special-interest giving and corporate influence in elections was… part of the problem, then this bill would pass. Now we get to see who in the Senate thinks there’s too much corporate influence and too much special-interest money that dominate our elections and who doesn’t. I don’t know how it could be any clearer than that.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) retorts: “The DISCLOSE Act seeks to protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all-out attack on the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010). In the process, the authors of the bill have decided to trade our constitutional rights away in a backroom deal that makes the Cornhusker Kickback look like a model of legislative transparency.” (Shiner 7/26/2010) The “Cornhusker Kickback” McConnell is referencing is a deal struck in late 2009 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to win Nelson’s support for the Democrats’ health care reform package, in which Nebraska, Nelson’s state, would receive 100 percent government financing for an expansion of Medicare. (Mascaro 12/20/2009)
Three citizen watchdog and pro-campaign finance groups, the Center for Media and Democracy, Protect Our Elections, and Public Citizen, allege that the tax-exempt nonprofit group American Future Fund (AFF) is violating tax law by operating primarily as a political advocacy group. AFF was founded and is operated by Nick Ryan, a former campaign advisor for former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and former Representative Jim Nussle (R-IA), and the head of a political consulting firm, the Concordia Group. Ryan also founded a pro-Santorum “super PAC” called the Red, White and Blue Fund. State Senator Sandra Greiner (R-IA) and prominent Iowa Republican Allison Dorr Kleis serve as the organization’s directors. The group states that it advocates for “conservative and free market ideals.” The New York Times will later confirm that Bruce Rastetter, co-founder and CEO of Hawkeye Energy Holdings, a large ethanol company, provided the seed money for AFF in 2008. Investigations by the Center for Public Integrity will also show that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) contributed $300,000 to the organization in 2010. The group also received $2.44 million from another 501(c)4 group, the American Justice Partnership, which advocates for “tort reform,” and over $11 million from the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights, another 501(c)(4) organization. The Times will find that AFF-supported candidates win 76 percent of the time, making the group “one of the most effective outside spending groups of the 2010 election cycle.” The law allows 501(c)4 groups (see 2000 - 2005) such as AFF to operate without taxation or legal scrutiny as long as they spend the bulk of their resources on “further[ing] the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” and not political advocacy. Moreover, federal election law provides that if a group’s major purpose is electioneering and it spends at least $1,000 to influence elections, it must register as a political action committee (PAC). A New York Times analysis recently showed that AFF spent 56 percent of its television budget on political advertising, and so far has spent $8.8 million on television ad buys. Its ads attack Democratic candidates in Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, and West Virginia, and expressly tell voters to cast their ballots against these candidates. And the organization’s Web site says it exists to “target… liberal politicians.” The group says it plans to spend as much as $25 million on the 2010 elections. In a press release, Public Citizen says that AFF, “a conservative nonprofit group pouring money into the 2010 midterm elections, appears to be violating campaign finance law.” The three groups file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking it to decide whether AFF has violated the tax code. If so, AFF would be forced to re-register as a PAC and be subjected to more disclosure requirements, particular who donates to the organization and how much they donate. Craig Holman of Public Citizen says: “American Future Fund is pulling out the stops to ensure that Republicans are elected this November. That imposes on the group the legal duty to register with the FEC and disclose exactly who is funding all those expenditures.” Protect Our Elections spokesperson Kevin Zeese says: “In this first post-Citizens United (see January 21, 2010) election, corporations and their executives are testing the limits of the law and crossing over into illegality. They cross the line when they use nonprofit groups to urge people to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ a specific candidate. Political committees violate the law when they accept anonymous contributions for their work. These violations of federal election and tax laws need to be challenged now; otherwise we will see even more anonymous corporate donations trying to illegally manipulate voters into voting against their own interests in future elections.” And Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy says: “Groups spending millions to attack Americans running for office should not be able to use their tax-free status to hide the truth about which fat cats are behind their ads. Voters have a right to know which corporations or millionaires are laundering their profits through nonprofits like the American Future Fund, whose main business seems to be electioneering. We have joined this complaint to demand that the law be enforced and the truth be told.” (Center for Media and Democracy, Protect Our Elections, and Public Citizen 10/12/2010 ; Public Citizen 10/20/2010; Kroll 1/28/2011; iWatch News 6/21/2012) AFF will continue to operate as a 501(c)4 group in spite of the FEC complaint, and will continue to spend heavily on anti-Democratic ads, many of which will be proven to be false by organizations such as FactCheck (.org). More complaints will be filed against the organization, including a February 2011 IRS complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). (iWatch News 6/21/2012)
Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and other prominent Democrats file a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that entity to force the disclosure of political campaign donor information. In 2007, after a Supreme Court ruling (see June 25, 2007), the FEC drastically rewrote its disclosure requirements, creating what Van Hollen calls a “major loophole” that many 501(c)4 entities funded by corporate or labor union donations are using to operate “under a veil of anonymity.” Van Hollen and his colleagues say they want to force wealthy corporations and individuals to disclose who they are and how much they donate to political organizations. Currently, the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) allows such donors to remain anonymous, and the organizations that receive their donations to conceal the amounts they are receiving. Van Hollen cites the 2002 Bipartisan Candidate Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002) as applying in this instance. In the brief he submits for the lawsuit, Van Hollen writes: “The US Chamber of Commerce, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $32.9 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $20.4 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; Americans for Job Security, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $4.6 million in electioneering communication in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors.” The lawsuit comes almost simultaneously with news that the White House is considering issuing an executive order that would require federal contractors to reveal their donations (see April 20, 2011). Democrats admit that even as they push the lawsuit forward, and President Obama publicly criticizes the practice of secret donations, they, too, are raising undisclosed donations for the various 2012 campaigns. Experts note that in most cases, Democrats’ efforts to raise undisclosed donations are far smaller than efforts by Republicans, and the amounts they are receiving are, so far, much smaller. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who is leading Van Hollen’s legal team, acknowledges that the lawsuit will not alter campaign finance policy before the 2012 elections, though he says it is possible that the lawsuit could receive a favorable decision and force disclosure while appeals are pending.
Similarities to DISCLOSE Act - Both the lawsuit and the executive order are similar to sections of the DISCLOSE Act, a legislative package drafted by Van Hollen and other Congressional Democrats that was blocked by Senate Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff says the lawsuit and the order comprise a “desperate attempt by the White House and House Democrats to resurrect the corpse of the DISCLOSE Act.” (Law professor Steven D. Schwinn will refute Latoff’s accusation, writing that Van Hollen’s lawsuit in no way seeks to force the DISCLOSE Act into law via the courts.) Like the failed legislation, the lawsuit and the proposed executive order would work to curtail the effects of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities. The lawsuit argues that the concealment of donor identities contradicts both the law and the Court’s ruling, citing the following language in the majority ruling: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.”
Seeks Change in FEC Regulations - The lawsuit specifically challenges an FEC regulation adopted in 2007 that contravened language in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (see March 27, 2002) that required disclosure of donations of $1,000 or more if the donations were made for the purpose of furthering “electioneering communications.” Another petition filed by Van Hollen’s group asks the FEC to revise a regulation that “improperly allowed nonprofit groups to keep secret the donors” whose funds were being used to pay for so-called independent expenditures in federal elections. (van Hollen 4/21/2011 ; Hamburger 4/21/2011; Lichtblau 4/21/2011; Steven D. Schwinn 4/25/2011; Fang 4/27/2011)
'Sign of Weakness' - Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC commissioner and the head of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative advocacy group, says of the lawsuit: “This is a sign of weakness by a group that’s afraid they’re going to lose, and lose big. Again and again, you see evidence that their real purpose is to try to shut down their political opposition.” Smith and other conservatives say Democrats want to “chill” free speech. (Lichtblau 4/21/2011)
FEC Will Refuse to Consider Accompanying Petition - In December 2011, the FEC will refuse to consider an accompanying petition on a 3-3 vote. (Commission 12/16/2011; Commission 12/16/2011) The vote is along partisan lines, with the three Democrats on the commission voting to consider the petition and the three Republicans voting against. The law prohibits the FEC from having a majority of commissioners from either party. (Israel 1/21/2012)
Judge Will Rule in Favor of Plaintiff - In March 2012, a district judge will rule in favor of Van Hollen in the lawsuit (see March 30, 2012).
A new “super PAC” aligned with presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R-MA) is being formed by a group of Romney backers and former Romney campaign aides, according to a report by the Washington Post. Super PACs are political organizations that exist to influence elections, which take unlimited amounts of outside money from donors, including individuals, unions, and corporations, and pool that money to advocate for or against a candidate (see March 26, 2010). By law, super PACs are supposed to operate independently of a candidate’s official campaign organization.
Restore Our Future - The Romney super PAC, “Restore Our Future” (ROF), is one of a number of such organizations created in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). Restore Our Future is apparently the first super PAC to form specifically in support of one of the 2012 presidential contenders, with the sole exception of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC in support of President Obama. ROF treasurer Charles R. Spies, who served as Romney’s general counsel in his 2008 presidential effort, refuses to disclose how much the organization has raised, or who is donating. Spies merely says: “This is an independent effort focused on getting Romney elected president. We will do that by focusing on jobs and his ability to fix the economy.” A Romney campaign aide says that a Federal Election Commission (FEC) filing coming up in July will show the organization having raised some $20 million. A major Romney donor who refuses to allow his identity to be revealed says, “We just want to show that we’ve got more dough than anyone.” The Romney campaign’s communication director, Gail Gitcho, says the campaign welcomes any outside support, and points to the Obama campaign as the largest fundraiser in the race, saying, “We are pleased that independent groups will be active in fighting this entrenched power [the Obama campaign] so the country can get back to work.”
Leaders of ROF - Members of the ROF board of directors include Spies; Carl Forti, political director for Romney’s 2008 campaign; and Larry McCarthy, a member of the Romney media team in 2008. Forti is the co-founder of the Black Rock Group consulting firm and the political director of American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC expected to raise over $120 million for candidates in 2012. Neither Forti nor American Crossroads will discuss the role played by Forti in both organizations. ROF actually registered itself with the FEC in October 2010, but has remained unaffiliated and essentially dormant until recent weeks. Now ROF officials are briefing top donors about the organization’s plans and fundraising goals. Former Obama spokesman Bill Burton, the head of Priorities USA Action, says: “I’m not surprised that there’s even more money coming into this race to help Mitt Romney. He’s a pretty deeply flawed candidate; he’s going to need all the help he can get.” Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics says of the super PACs: “The outside groups are akin to the biggest booster club you can imagine for a college football team. The club can’t give cars or gifts to the players, but they can do everything else possible to support them.… It’s a brand-new way to play politics.” (Eggen and Cillizza 6/23/2011) The Post fails to note many of the details about ROF’s senior officials. According to the Public Campaign Action Fund, Spies is not only a lawyer and a consultant, but a registered lobbyist for Clark Hill PLC, representing a chain of luxury casinos. ROF’s address as listed on its FEC filings is the same as Clark Hill’s Washington, DC, office. The Action Fund observes, referring to the Republican primary and the number of wealthy donors lined up behind each major candidate, “While [ROF] officially can’t coordinate with the Romney campaign, having lobbyists on your side is definitely a good way to boost one’s standing in the so-called ‘wealth primary.’” (Public Campaign Action Fund 6/23/2011) The liberal news Web site Think Progress will soon note that McCarthy is a veteran advertising creator for Republican candidates, and was one of the strongest creative forces behind the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” ad, which many considered to be extraordinarily racist (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). In 2010, McCarthy served as a media strategist for the American Future Fund, which launched attack ads attempting to link Democrats to the Park 51 community center in Manhattan, deemed by conservatives as the “Ground Zero Victory Mosque” and mischaracterized as a monument celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Those ads were decried by many as being bigoted against Muslims. McCarthy has brushed off criticism of his ads, and said the fact-checking organizations that found his ads to be flawed suffered from a pro-Democratic bias. Think Progress reporter Lee Fang will write that when he tried to find the American Future Fund office in Iowa, the address listed for the group turned out to be a UPS mailbox in a strip mall near an airport. Fang will write, “With a record of such secrecy and racist, anything-goes campaign tactics, one can expect Romney’s new outside group to be just as ugly in the presidential race.” (Vogel 10/29/2010; Fang 6/27/2011)
Law professor John Yoo, who during his tenure at the Justice Department wrote memos defending torture and the right of the executive branch to conduct its business in secret (see March 1996, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 4, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, November 2, 2001, November 5, 2001, and November 6-10, 2001), co-authors an article for the far-right American Enterprise Institute that attacks the Obama administration for considering the idea of an executive order to require government contractors to disclose their political contributions (see April 20, 2011 and May 26, 2011). The article, by Yoo and lawyer David W. Marston, is entitled “Overruling Citizens United with Chicago-Style Politics,” a reference to some of the unsavory and often-illegal political machinations undertaken by Chicago Democrats. The article repeatedly compares the Obama administration to the Nixon administration’s attempts to “use the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies,” as Yoo and Marston quote from a 1971 Nixon White House memo. Yoo and Marston say that the Obama administration, in an effort to recoup its losses from the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010]), “is making an unprecedented assault on free speech” by considering the executive order and by pushing the DISCLOSE Act (see July 26-27, 2010). (Yoo and Marston claim that the DISCLOSE Act, if passed into law, “would have forced all those doing business with the government to give up their ability to participate in the political process, as is their right under the First Amendment, aside from just voting on Election Day.”) They write: “Under the guise of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ the order curtails constitutionally protected speech rights and opens the door for retaliation against those not supporting the administration politically,” and go on to observe that in their opinion, this “assault on free speech” (see January 21, 2010 and January 22, 2010) is being joined by “the media [and] defenders of free speech.” Yoo and Marston claim that the Founding Fathers intended for corporations and other entities to be able to involve themselves in politics entirely anonymously, citing the example of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison publishing the Federalist Papers under the nom de plume “Publius.” Indeed, Yoo and Marston write, “disclosure of political contributions may be a prelude to the thuggish suppression of political speech by harassment and intimidation,” and they cite the instances of boycotts, vandalism, and death threats against people in California who donated money in support of Proposition 8, which declared gay marriage illegal. “Mandated disclosure of financial support for a political viewpoint can become the springboard for lawless retaliation against citizens for holding unpopular views,” the authors write. “Disclosure” and “transparency,” the “wonder drugs du jour,” are already “being used to silence core First Amendment speech rights and to threaten America’s long protection of anonymous political speech,” they contend, and claim that “thugs” are attempting to use violence and intimidation to nullify the Citizens United decision, force the issuance of the Obama executive order, and push the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to expand disclosure requirements. Only allowing financial donors to remain secret, the authors say, protects their rights to free speech and political involvement. “[D]isclosure invites retaliation,” they argue; only secrecy can protect free speech. The authors even cite a case brought on behalf of the NAACP, in which the organization was allowed to keep its membership lists secret for fear of attacks on its members or their families by white supremacists. (Yoo and Marston 7/20/2011) Ian Millhiser, a legal expert for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, angrily rebuts Yoo and Marston’s claims. Millhiser, referencing Yoo’s opinions issued during his stint in the Bush administration, writes, “If there is anyone in the universe who should think twice before criticizing a government lawyer for enabling a president to break the law, it is John Yoo.” He goes on to criticize Yoo’s legal thinking in the article, noting that the Citizens United ruling held that “disclosure could be justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” Millhiser writes: “President Obama’s proposed executive order provides the electorate with information about the sources of election-related spending. So Yoo’s entire argument can be rebutted in exactly two sentences.” After rebutting other portions of Yoo and Marston’s arguments, Millhiser concludes, “Yoo’s defense of corporate America’s power to secretly buy elections is weak even by his own tragically incompetent standards.” (Millhiser 7/22/2011)
A three-judge district court in Washington, DC, denies a lawsuit, Bluman v. Federal Election Commission, filed by two foreign citizens asking that they be allowed to contribute money to US political campaigns (see March 2011). Two of the judges, Brett Kavanaugh and Rosemary Collyer, were both appointed to the bench by the Bush administration. The court finds: “[I]t is undisputed that the government may bar foreign citizens from voting and serving as elected officers. It follows that the government may bar foreign citizens (at least those who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States) from participating in the campaign process that seeks to influence how voters will cast their ballots in the elections. Those limitations on the activities of foreign citizens are of a piece and are all ‘part of the sovereign’s obligation to preserve the basic conception of a political community.’” Kavanaugh’s concurrence even cites, briefly, foreign law: “It bears mentioning, moreover, that plaintiffs’ home countries—Israel and Canada—and many other democratic countries impose similar restraints on political spending by foreign citizens. See, e.g., Canada Elections Act [and] Knesset Election Law.” The plaintiffs, identified as Benjamin Bluman and Asenath Steiman, had argued that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) opened the door for foreign involvement in US elections. The case can be appealed to the Supreme Court. (Memorandum Opinion 8/8/2011; Millhiser 8/8/2011; Millhiser 1/5/2012) The Supreme Court will deny the Bluman appeal (see January 9, 2012).
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 ; Hasen 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.” (Millhiser 10/26/2011)
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. (Canham 11/24/2011; Millhiser 11/28/2011; Romboy 12/1/2011)
The political watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) files a complaint against presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (R-GA) alleging that he sold his mailing list to his own campaign for $42,000. CREW files the complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and calls the transaction an unlawful personal use of campaign funds. The complaint also alleges that Gingrich seems to be improperly commingling book sales and campaign events. The mailing list sale was never listed on FEC disclosure forms. CREW executive director Melanie Sloan says: “Newt Gingrich will do anything to make a buck, even sell his own mailing list to his campaign. He has a long history of playing fast and loose with ethics rules, so it should surprise no one to learn he is at it again.” Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond says in response that “if the FEC considers the complaint, they will find that the rules are being followed and published regulations are being enforced.” It is not unusual for political campaigns to buy and sell mailing lists, but the Gingrich case is unusual because Gingrich’s campaign says it bought the mailing list directly from Gingrich, and not from a political committee or group. Documents show that Gingrich stated in July 2011 that he was owed $47,005 by the campaign for “direct mail list/travel.” At the time, Hammond said the campaign paid Gingrich $42,000 for the mailing list. Hammond claims that he, not Gingrich, owned the mailing list, and that the failure to disclose the payment was merely an oversight. In its complaint, CREW notes that the mailing list was not included as an asset in Gingrich’s financial disclosure records, which are filed by presidential candidates. Therefore, the group argues, the list appears to be owned by Gingrich Productions, which is the name of the holding firm now headed by Gingrich’s wife Callista. Gingrich Productions routinely sells books and other materials at the same venues as Gingrich holds campaign-related events, an improper “commingling” of sales and campaign appearances. Federal law prohibits candidates from using campaign resources to profit personally or from using corporate funds to subsidize a campaign. (Eggen 12/19/2011) On the same day as the complaint filing, the press reveals an “extraordinary” and potentially illegal relationship between Gingrich and an “independent” political PAC (see December 19, 2011).
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus sharply criticizes the actions of so-called “super PACs.” Super PACs are political organizations that exist to influence elections, which take unlimited amounts of outside money from donors, including individuals, unions, and corporations, and pool that money to advocate for or against a candidate (see March 26, 2010). By law, super PACs are supposed to operate independently of a candidate’s official campaign organization. A mere 12 donors, including several corporations, one union, and a number of billionaires, made up over half of the donations given to super PACs in the first half of 2011, and Republican super PACs have outraised Democratic super PACs by more than a 2-1 margin (see August 4, 2011). Marcus writes that the presidential election is already devolving into an affair “without meaningful contribution limits or timely disclosure, outsourced to political action committees whose spending often dwarfs that of the candidates they support.” The PACs and super PACs rarely obey the law and operate independently of the candidates they support. The Republican primary season demonstrates just how powerful they are: the super PAC supporting presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R-MA), “Restore Our Future,” has spent $4 million attacking Republican candidate Newt Gingrich (R-GA). The veneer of independence for Restore Our Future is thin: it is run by former Romney political director Carl Forti, its treasurer Charles Spies was Romney’s general counsel, its head fundraiser Steve Roche used to head the Romney 2012 finance team, and Romney has spoken at Restore Our Future events (see June 23, 2011). However, Marcus notes, “up-to-date information about who is bankrolling this effort will not be available until the end of January, by which point four states will have voted and Romney may have the nomination wrapped up.” Restore Our Future was last required to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in July 2011, when it reported raising $12 million. Gingrich’s own super PAC, “Winning Our Future,” is primarily funded by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, and their fellow Republican candidate Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) has the super PAC “Make Us Great Again.” Long-shot Republican candidate Jon Huntsman’s super PAC, “Our Destiny,” is reportedly funded primarily by Huntsman’s wealthy father. And President Obama’s super PAC, “Priorities USA Action,” has launched anti-Romney ads. Marcus writes, “The rise of these groups erodes the twin pillars of a functional campaign finance system: limits on the size of contributions and timely information about who is writing the checks.” Her concerns are echoed by veteran campaign finance reformer Fred Wertheimer, who recently said: “The establishment of the candidate-specific super PAC is a vehicle to completely destroy candidate contribution limits. It is a vehicle that will spread to Congress and it will lead us back to a system of pure legalized bribery, because you will be back, pre-Watergate, to unlimited contributions that are going for all practical purposes directly to candidates.” For now, super PACs, with their supposed independence, are free to air advertisements attacking opposing candidates while the candidate they support, Marcus writes, “gets to remain above the fray, not required to appear on camera to say that he or she approved this message.” FEC official Ellen Weintraub tells Marcus, “I view the super PAC as the evil twin of the candidate’s campaign committee.” Referring to the legal limit of $2,500 for donations to candidates from individual or corporate donors, Weintraub says, “How can it possibly be true that to give more than $2,500 to a candidate is potentially corrupting but to give millions to an outside group that is acting on the candidate’s behalf is not?” Marcus concludes by saying that “dangerous” super PACs will only increase their influence as the presidential campaign season continues. (Marcus 1/3/2012)
According to data reported by the Sunlight Foundation, Crossroads GPS, the organization raising and spending money on behalf of Republican candidates in the presidential election, reported spending $500,000 on ads attacking President Obama in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri. Those ads are somewhat countered by $36,000 of ads aired by Planned Parenthood Action Fund in Florida and Michigan. Under campaign finance law, groups such as these are not required to reveal their donors, though they are required to periodically reveal to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that the ads have been bought, and how much was spent on them. One of Crossroads GPS’s ads accuses Obama of funneling government money to failed projects such as solar panel maker Solyndra, and ignoring those laid off by these companies. The Planned Parenthood ad lauds Obama for protecting access to affordable birth control. Crossroads GPS is a veteran in the post-Citizens United campaign finance world, having spent some $16 million in the 2010 elections, while the Planned Parenthood group is a relatively new player in the field, making its first expenditures on behalf of House candidate Kathy Hochul in 2011. (Gratten 2/7/2012)
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.” (Smith 2/17/2012)
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.
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.
2000: The law remains essentially unchanged. By March 2000, outside spending was around $2.6 million.
2004: With the advent of “527” groups, by March 2004, outside spending rose to $14 million.
2008: Under similar conditions as 2004, by March 2008, outside spending rose to $37.5 million.
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.” (Hasen 3/9/2012)
A federal court rules that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has exceeded its authority by requiring only corporations and labor unions, and not all contributors, to report contributions made for the purpose of furthering electioneering communications as defined in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in Washington, DC, issues the ruling in the case of Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission, filed by US Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD—see April 21, 2011 and After). Under the BCRA, corporations or labor unions who do not segregate their funds for campaign purposes as opposed to more general purposes must report all contributions of $1,000 or more. (The Citizens United decision of 2010 rendered such segregation of funds optional—see January 21, 2010.) Those contributions include money donated by anyone who gives to a corporation or labor union. In December 2007, the FEC revamped its disclosure regulation in the wake of the Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission ruling (the so-called “WRTL ruling”—see June 25, 2007) to create a loophole allowing corporations to evade disclosure requirements. 501(c)4 groups such as Crossroads GPS have avoided disclosure of their donors by using this loophole. Jackson agrees with Van Hollen, ruling that the FEC’s revision violates the plain language and legislative purpose of the BCRA. Jackson writes: “Congress spoke plainly, that Congress did not delegate authority to the FEC to narrow the disclosure requirement through agency rulemaking, and that a change in the reach of the statute brought about by a Supreme Court ruling did not render plain language, which is broad enough to cover the new circumstances, to be ambiguous. The agency cannot unilaterally decide to take on a quintessentially legislative function; if sound policy suggests that the statute needs tailoring in the wake of WRTL or Citizens United, it is up to Congress to do it.” She rejected arguments that broader reporting requirements would place an undue burden on corporations and unions, and thusly would violate their First Amendment freedoms, ruling that the Citizens United decision already invalidated those arguments by upholding BCRA reporting requirements. If Jackson’s ruling survives an appeal, the FEC will have to go back and revamp its regulatory language to require disclosure of all contributors, no matter what the purpose, for any corporation or labor union that uses general, unsegregated funds for campaign purposes. Or, corporations and unions may choose to create segregated funds for campaign purposes in order to avoid reporting their contributors. Josh Israel of the liberal news Web site Think Progress writes that even if the FEC chooses to rewrite its rules to comply with Jackson’s ruling, “countless loopholes remain” to allow corporations and unions to shield the identities of their donors. For instance, donors and companies could more-or-less launder donations through middle-man groups, shielding their own identities. “Even if we somehow achieved full disclosure… for all political spending,” Israel writes, “any meaningful reforms to the campaign finance system will require the high court to reverse the 5-4 Citizens United ruling.” (Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. 9/2002; National Archives and Records Administration 2012; Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission: Memorandum Opinion 3/30/2012; Constitutional Law Prof Blog 4/3/2012; Israel 4/9/2012) On May 14, an appeals court will refuse a stay of the decision, filed by an organization identified in the court order as the Center for Individual Freedom. (US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Court 5/14/2012 )
USA Today, using data provided by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), reports that much of the unprecedentedly high political contributions in the 2012 presidential campaigns comes from anonymous donors. The report also shows that eight out of the top 10 donors give to Republican and/or conservative super PACs. The pattern is similar to that described in earlier reports, such as an August 2011 report that found a dozen wealthy donors made up the majority of super PAC donations, and most of those donors contributed to Republican or conservative organizations (see August 4, 2011), and a February 2012 analysis that found a quarter of the donations flowing into the super PACs came from just five wealthy donors, four of whom are Republican contributors (see February 21, 2012). The latest data shows that eight out of 10 of the top super PAC donors are either individuals or corporations who donate to Republican causes. One of the remaining two donors, the Cooperative of American Physicians, supports a single Democratic candidate and a range of Republicans. The other is a teachers’ union, the National Education Association. The top three donors—casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Dallas industrialist Harold Simmons and his wife Annette, and Houston real-estate mogul Bob Perry—have between them contributed over $45 million, more than four times the donations coming from the “bottom” six donors. Much of the money collected by nonprofit political advocacy organizations remains undocumented; for example, 80 percent of the donations collected by the Republican-aligned American Crossroads super PAC and its 501(c)4 sister organization Crossroads GPS is from anonymous donors (see April 13-20, 2012). The groups plan on spending at least $300 million during the campaign. FreedomWorks for America, the super PAC arm of the “astroturf” lobbying organization FreedomWorks (see April 14, 2009), garnered about a third of its contributions from anonymous donors who gave to the organization’s nonprofit arm. Law professor and campaign finance expert Richard Hasen says, “We have a dysfunctional system for financing our elections,” when anonymous donations can fund political activity. “It’s bad for our democracy when people refuse to be held accountable.” Russ Walker, the national political director of FreedomWorks for America, says simply, “Everything we are doing is within the law.” (Schouten and Schnaars 4/22/2012; Millhiser 4/23/2012)
Author and political pundit, Jeffrey Toobin, publishes an in-depth article for the New Yorker showing that Chief Justice John Roberts engineered the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010), moving it from a case that could well have been considered and decided on a relatively narrow basis to a sweeping decision that reformed the nation’s campaign finance structure. Toobin writes that the underlying issue was quite narrow: the conservative advocacy organization Citizens United (CU) wanted to run a documentary attacking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on “video on demand” cable broadcast (see January 10-16, 2008). Under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation (see March 27, 2002 and December 10, 2003), the Federal Election Commission (FEC) disallowed the broadcast because it would come 30 days or less before primary elections. CU challenged the decision in court (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). (Toobin 5/21/2012) Toobin’s article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Oath: The Obama White House vs. The Supreme Court. It is dated May 21, but appears on the New Yorker’s Web site on May 14. (Tom Goldstein 5/14/2012)
Oral Arguments - During the initial arguments (see March 15, 2009), attorney Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration, argued a narrow case: that McCain-Feingold’s prohibitions only applied to television commercials, not to full-length documentary films. Olson argued, “This sort of communication was not something that Congress intended to prohibit.” Toobin writes: “Olson’s argument indicated that there was no need for the Court to declare any part of the law unconstitutional, or even to address the First Amendment implications of the case. Olson simply sought a judgment that McCain-Feingold did not apply to documentaries shown through video on demand.… If the justices had resolved the case as Olson had suggested, today Citizens United might well be forgotten—a narrow ruling on a remote aspect of campaign-finance law.” However, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most vocal opponents of campaign finance restrictions on the Court (see September 26, 1986, December 15, 1986, March 27, 1990, June 26, 1996, June 16, 2003, December 10, 2003, and June 25, 2007), seemed disappointed in the limited nature of Olson’s argument, Toobin writes. The oral arguments expand the case far beyond Olson’s initial position. Olson’s initial intention was to narrow the case so that the Court would not have to expand its scope to find in favor of CU.
Change of Scope - Ironically, the government’s lead lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, may well have changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation. Traditionally, lawyers with the solicitor general (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. Toobin writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who had clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. But, Toobin writes, Stewart fell into a trap, prompted by Justice Samuel Alito’s pointed questioning about the government’s ability to ban or censor printed materials—i.e. books—under McCain-Feingold—and follow-up questions by Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, that led him to claim incorrectly that the government could indeed censor books under the law. Stewart’s incorrect assertion gave Roberts and his colleagues the chance to overturn McCain-Feingold on the grounds of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Second Arguments - The second arguments were held on September 9, 2009 (see September 9, 2009). The concept of “money equals speech” goes back at least as far as the 1976 Buckley decision (see January 30, 1976), and the five conservative justices were poised to stretch that definition much farther than has previously been done.
Majority Opinion - Toobin writes that Roberts’s decision was then to decide “how much he wanted to help the Republican Party. Roberts’s choice was: a lot.” Roberts assigned the opinion to Kennedy, the “swing” justice who had already written an expansive opinion gutting almost a century’s worth of campaign finance legislation. Kennedy tends to “swing wildly in one direction or another,” Toobin writes, “an extremist—of varied enthusiasms.” In the area of campaign finance, he has consistently “swung” to the conservative side of the argument. He is, Toobin writes, “extremely receptive to arguments that the government had unduly restricted freedom of speech—especially in the area of campaign finance.” Moreover, Kennedy enjoys writing controversial and “high-profile” opinions. Toobin says that Roberts’s choice of Kennedy to write the opinion was clever: Roberts came onto the Court promising to conduct himself with judicial modesty and a respect for precedent. Kennedy, with his draft opinion at the ready, was a better choice to write an opinion that lacked either modesty or a respect for Court precedence. Roberts, Toobin writes, “obtained a far-reaching result without leaving his own fingerprints.” Kennedy, in an often-eloquent opinion that did not deal with the gritty reality of the Citizens United case, stated that any restraint of money in a campaign risked infringing on free speech. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.… By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.” Kennedy also reaffirmed the Court’s perception that corporations deserve the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by individuals. Kennedy’s opinion found, in Toobin’s words, that “[t]he Constitution required that all corporations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, be allowed to spend as much as they wanted, anytime they wanted, in support of the candidates of their choosing.” One of the only provisions remaining in McCain-Feingold after Kennedy’s opinion was the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.
Fiery Dissent from 'Liberal' Stevens - Toobin reminds readers that the elder statesman of the “liberal” wing of the Court at the time, John Paul Stevens, is a “moderate Midwestern Republican,” one of the last of a “vanishing political tradition.” Though Stevens’s views have migrated left on some issues, such as the death penalty, Toobin writes that the perception of Stevens as a Court liberal is mostly because of the Court’s steady progression to the right. Toobin writes that the 90-year-old Stevens has grown dispirited in recent years, as the conservative wing of the Court, led by Scalia, Alito, and Roberts with Clarence Thomas and often Kennedy in tow, overturned one Court precedent after another. “The course of Citizens United represented everything that offended Stevens most about the Roberts Court,” Toobin writes. Much of Stevens’s objections to the Roberts Court are rooted in procedure; he is deeply troubled by the Citizens United case being transformed by Roberts and his conservative colleagues from a narrowly focused case about a single McCain-Feingold provision to what Toobin calls “an assault on a century of federal laws and precedents. To Stevens, it was the purest kind of judicial activism.” Stevens wrote in his angry dissent, “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.” A simple change in the McCain-Feingold law to disallow its application to full-length documentaries the CU case was sparked by, or even to nonprofit organizations such as CU, would have been appropriate, Stevens wrote. He penned a 90-page dissent, the longest of his career, blasting almost every aspect of Kennedy’s decision, starting with Kennedy’s ignoring of precedent and continuing with a refutation of Kennedy’s perception of the Constitutional definitions of “censorship” and “free speech.” Stevens was angered by Kennedy’s equivocation of corporations with people. “The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare,” he wrote. “Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” Congress has drawn significant distinctions between corporations and people for over a century, he wrote: “at the federal level, the express distinction between corporate and individual political spending on elections stretches back to 1907, when Congress passed the Tillman Act” (see 1907). He even challenged Kennedy’s stated fear that the government might persecute individuals’ speech based on “the speaker’s identity,” sarcastically noting that Kennedy’s opinion “would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ [a famed Japanese propagandist] during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.” According to Toobin, Stevens’s law clerks disliked the dated reference, but Stevens, a Navy veteran, insisted on keeping it. Toobin writes that “Stevens’s conclusion was despairing.” Stevens concluded: “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.” Toobin notes that as “impressive” as Stevens’s dissent may have been, it was Kennedy’s opinion that “was reshaping American politics.”
Reaction - In his State of the Union address six days after the verdict, President Obama referenced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concerns about foreign influence in American politics by saying, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections” (see January 27-29, 2010). Democrats cheered as Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.” Alito’s mouthing of the words “not true” stirred some controversy; Toobin notes that Alito was technically correct, as “Kennedy’s opinion expressly reserved the question of whether the ruling applied to foreign corporations.” However, Toobin notes, “as Olson had argued before the justices, the logic of the Court’s prior decisions suggested that foreign corporations had equal rights to spend in American elections.” With the Citizens United decision and a March 2010 decision that allowed for the formation of “super PACs” (see March 26, 2010), the way was clear for what Toobin calls “presidential campaigns in 2012 that were essentially underwritten by single individuals.” He notes the billionaires that almost single-handedly supported Republican presidential candidates (see February 21, 2012, February 16-17, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 26, 2012, and April 22, 2012), and the efforts of organizations like Crossroads GPS that have to date raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates (see May 2, 2012). Toobin believes that the Court will continue to deregulate campaign finance, noting the 2011 decision that invalidated Arizona’s system of public financing that state enacted after a series of campaign finance scandals (see June 27, 2011). He concludes, “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Criticisms of the Article - Toobin’s article will engender significant criticism, from nuanced questioning of particular elements of Toobin’s story (see May 14, 2012) to accusations of outright “fictionalizing” (see May 17, 2012) and “libelous” claims (see May 15-17, 2012).
The press reports that Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of oil firm Continental Resources, gave $985,000 to the “independent” super PAC supporting the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future (ROF—see June 23, 2011), three days after he became a Romney campaign advisor. The information comes from financial disclosure forms filed today with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Hamm gave the Romney campaign the maximum allowed donation of $2,500 in October 2011. He has also contributed $61,600 to the Republican National Committee (RNC). On April 1, 2012, Hamm became the Romney campaign’s top advisor, and made the huge donation to ROF on April 3. NBC reporter Michael Isikoff writes that Hamm’s donation “is a new example of how big super PAC donors can make their policy views heard by the campaigns they are supporting.” Hamm’s contribution was the second largest donation garnered by ROF during April. Hamm’s company is the largest leaseholder of the Bakken, the large shale formation in North Dakota; as a result, Hamm is a strong proponent of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project and a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s energy policies, particularly the administration’s decision to postpone the Keystone project and its efforts to curb tax breaks for oil exploration. Hamm chairs the Romney campaign’s “Energy Policy Advisory Group,” tasked with creating a new “pro-jobs, pro-market, pro-American” energy agenda, as the campaign has described it. The day Hamm was announced as the advisor for the Romney campaign, he said he was backing Romney in part because he was “acutely aware” of “how outrageously [Obama] has attacked energy producers in particular.” Isikoff writes that Hamm’s donations to ROF “could potentially raise questions about the connections between his donations and his role in shaping campaign policies that might benefit his company.” Neither Romney’s campaign nor Continental Resources will reveal the names of the other members of the Energy Policy Advisory Group, or answer questions about Hamm’s role in the campaign. (Isikoff 5/21/2012) Two days after the filing, Rebecca Leber of the liberal news Web site Think Progress will write, “Campaigns and super PACs are not legally allowed to coordinate, but in reality many of Romney’s donors have turned to super PACs to escape contribution ceilings” (see January 31, 2012). (Leber 5/23/2012)
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.” (Feingold 6/14/2012)
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