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President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt signs the Tillman Act into law. The Act prohibits monetary contributions to national political campaigns by corporations and national banks. Roosevelt, dogged by allegations that he had accepted improper donations during his 1904 presidential campaign, has pushed for such restrictions since he took office (see August 23, 1902 and December 5, 1905). (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-SC), later described by National Public Radio as a “populist and virulent racist,” sponsored the bill. (National Public Radio 2012) In 1900, Tillman was quoted as saying about black voters: “We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.” (Atlas 2010, pp. 205) Unfortunately, the law is easily circumvented. Businesses and corporations give employees large “bonuses” with the understanding that the employee then gives the bonus to a candidate “endorsed” by the firm. Not only do the corporations find and exploit this loophole, they receive an additional tax deduction for “employee benefits.” The law will be amended to cover primary elections in 1911 (see 1911). (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)
The Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), also called the Publicity Act, is passed. It will remain the backbone of American campaign finance regulation until expanded in 1925 (see 1925). It expands upon the Tillman Act’s prohibition against corporate and bank donations to federal election campaigns (see 1907) by enacting campaign spending limits on US House election campaigns. It also requires full disclosure of all monies spent and contributed during federal campaigns. In 1911, the FCPA will be amended to cover Senate elections as well, and to set spending limits on all Congressional races. However, the bill fails to provide for enforcement and verification procedures, so the law remains essentially useless. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ; Moneyocracy 2/2012) The law is rendered even less powerful after the Supreme Court overturns its provision limiting House and Senate candidate spending. (Pearson Education 2004)
The federal government revises and expands the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see June 25, 1910), a campaign finance law that lacks any enforcement or verification mechanisms, in the wake of the Teapot Dome corruption scandal. The amended version codifies and revises the expenditure limits and disclosure procedures for US Congressional candidates. It will replace the original FCPA as well as its predecessor, the Tillman Act (see 1907), and will remain the backbone of American campaign finance law until 1971. All campaign spending is strictly regulated, with contributions of $50 and over during a calendar year mandated to be reported. Senatorial candidates can spend no more than three cents for each voter in the last election, to a maximum of $25,000. House candidates may also spend up to three cents per voter in the last election, up to a $5,000 maximum. Offers of patronage and contracts are banned, as is any form of bribery. Corporate contributions of all kinds are banned. However, the power of enforcement is entirely vested within Congress, and thusly is routinely ignored. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 ; Pearson Education 2004; National Public Radio 2012) In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson will refer to the FCPA as “more loophole than law.” (Geraci 2006 ; National Public Radio 2012)
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) calls the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” overturning of corporate campaign finance restrictions (see January 21, 2010) a disaster. Schumer says, “With a stroke of a pen, the court decided to overrule the 100-year-old ban on corporate expenditures and override the will of millions of Americans who want their voices heard in our democracy.” Other Democrats agree. When questioned about Schumer’s comments by reporters from the Tampa Bay Times’s PolitiFact investigative arm, Schumer’s office says that the “100-year-old” reference refers to the 1907 Tillman Act (see 1907), and cites Justice John Paul Stevens’s dissent, which stated: “The majority’s approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress has placed special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907.” PolitiFact finds that Schumer’s characterization is “a stretch” because of the differences between independent expenditures and direct contributions. Independent expenditures are monies spent by corporations to support or oppose an issue or a candidate. Direct contributions are donations to a candidate’s campaign. Corporations may not make direct contributions to campaigns; they have to form political action committees (PACs) for that purpose. The Citizens United decision does not affect that portion of the law. According to PolitiFact, the Tillman Act applies more to independent expenditures than to direct contributions, as does the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (see June 23, 1947). Schumer’s characterization, PolitiFact finds, is not entirely accurate. “[H]e ignores the fact that the ban on direct donations from corporations to campaigns still exists,” PolitiFact writes. “And the oldest law that specifically banned independent expenditures dated to 1947. You could also argue that we should be dating this from the 1970s campaign finance laws, or even the 1990 Austin case (see March 27, 1990). So he’s exaggerating the scope of the ruling and how long the laws have been on the books.” (Tampa Bay Times 1/22/2010) Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) joins Schumer and other Democrats in criticizing the ruling, calling it the “worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case” (see March 6, 1857). (Think Progress 1/22/2010)
In a highly unusual action for a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Justice Clarence Thomas strongly defends the Court’s recent Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate and union funding of campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). He makes his remarks at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida. Thomas was part of the 5-4 majority that ruled on the case. He also says that he refused to attend the recent State of the Union address by President Obama, where fellow Justice Samuel Alito apparently contradicted Obama’s critical characterization of the ruling (see January 27-29, 2010), because under Obama, these addresses have become “partisan,” stating: “I don’t go because it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there… there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV—the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments (see September 9, 2009). One of the consequences is now the Court becomes part of the conversation, if you want to call it that, in the speeches. It’s just an example of why I don’t go.” Thomas mocks media criticisms of the ruling, saying: “I found it fascinating that the people who were editorializing against it were The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company. These are corporations.” It is a mistake, Thomas says, to consider regulation of corporations’ campaign activities as “some sort of beatific action,” and he cites the 1907 Tillman Act, the first federal legislation banning corporate contributions to federal candidates (see 1907), as being sparked by racism, saying: “Go back and read why [Senator Benjamin] Tillman introduced that legislation. Tillman was from South Carolina, and as I hear the story he was concerned that the corporations, Republican corporations, were favorable toward blacks and he felt that there was a need to regulate them.” Thomas says the underpinning of the decision was the First Amendment’s protection of speech regardless of how people choose to assemble to participate in the political process. “If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association,” he says. “If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association. But what if you put yourself in a corporate form?” The answer would be the same, Thomas says. (Liptak 2/3/2010)
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)
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).