2012 Republican Primaries

The People's Blog

Money Talks: Citizens United v. FEC (2010)


By Janel Forsythe

2010 Supreme Court Decision Impacts Current GOP Primaries

In January 2010, the Supreme Court reached a shocking verdict in regards to campaign financing.  The Court reached a 5-4 decision that allowed corporate donors to face fewer restrictions on the amount of money they contributed to campaigns in Citizens United v. FEC.  Corporate spending on elections was interpreted as a Free Speech right that was protected under the First Amendment, for corporations are legal persons under the Fourteenth Amendment.  In May 2010, a FederalCourt upheld the Citizens United bill when it permitted Super PACS to accept unlimited amounts of money from corporate donors in SpeechNow v. FEC.  How did this all happen after years of regulations? Well, allow me take you back the 2008 Democratic Primaries.

As Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled each other in the primaries, the conservative action group Citizens United had a different agenda.  This nonprofit group, which received corporate funding, wanted to inform Americans on Sen. Clinton’s scandalous and divisive traits in the TV documentary Hillary: The Movie.  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Barack Obama, and other political pundits were included in this film seeking to brand her as ill-equipped for the presidency.  The Federal Election Commission (FEC) prohibited public showing of the movie under provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act (2002) banning advertisements supporting or attacking candidates close to voting dates.  Citizens United decided to sue the FEC over this ban and this case eventually reached the Supreme Court.  Though it was initially focused upon the FEC restriction, it eventually transformed into a larger debate regarding special interests groups and their Free Speech rights.

Various laws prohibited corporations and unions from freely spending money in elections.  The Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) restricted union and corporate expenditures on campaigns, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) sought to limit the co-option of corporations in elections and the McCain-Feingold Act (2003) contained various rules regarding campaign donations from all sources.  In response, Citizen United’s attorney Theodore Olson contended that such laws were all unconstitutional because they essentially limited corporate free speech.  As a nonprofit organization funded by corporations, Citizens United wanted such bans on advertisements and spending eliminated.

Attorney Olson was in luck because Republican Justices in the Court considered his plea.  In the final verdict, they struck down corporate finance bans found in all three laws previously mentioned.  Therefore, most corporate restrictions for campaign spending were overruled and advertisements could be biased towards specific candidates at any time.  This case was decided in January 2010, and served as a precedent for SpeechNow v. FEC (2010).  A Washington, D.C. Federal District Court ruled that Super PACS could receive unlimited funding from corporate donors who could remain anonymous; Super PACS used to have a $5,000 limit on donations until Judges overruled that limit through SpeechNow in May 2010.  In effect, Congress would have more difficulty passing a law like McCain-Feingold, and states have to adhere to the precedence of Citizen United v. FEC (2010).  The legal impact of Citizens United clearly shows that this law had substantial effects on campaign financing just months after its creation and in the possibly in the future.

Today, a plethora of online blogs and news sources shed insight on campaign financing within the current GOP primaries.  The Young Turks reported that a group of Wall Street billionaires pledged to defeat President Obama in this year’s election with $100 million.  David and Charles Koch, two brothers heading Koch Industries, held a fundraiser to raise this money, with Charles Koch contributing about $40 million to this cause.  On the other hand, most corporate-based money has been going to Mitt Romney’s campaign.  A recent Reuters article showed that D.C. lobbyists within the financial and health sectors gave money to his campaign because they support his pro-business stance.  About $1.5 million has been given to Romney from 390 lobbyists, some of whom include Google, Inc. and AT&T.  However, the other three candidates received a mere $94,000 combined from their lobbyists.  Over 65 percent of the political ads aired in the recent Alabama and Mississippi primaries were in support of Romney.   Greg Giroux from Bloomberg noted that the “Restore Our Future” Super PAC for Romney aired over 3,656 ads in comparison to 865 from “Winning Our Future” for Gingrich and 582 from “Red, White, and Blue” for Santorum.  Altogether, OpenSecrets.org has found that outside spending for both President Obama and the GOP candidates has reached over $92 million, with Super PACS contributing almost $80 million to the overall total reported.  In comparison, the total expenditures from the 2008 elections at this time were only $37.8 million, and the amount of public disclosure on Super PAC funders has nose-dived.  This information clearly shows that Citizens United and the subsequent SpeechNow decision have really opened the floodgates for rampant corporate spending on electoral campaigns.

It is truly remarkable at how much money has been spent so far on the 2012 presidential race as a result of Citizens United.  Although these politicians accept donations from the general public, corporate sources have provided them with substantial funds.  The suppression of a documentary critiquing a past presidential candidate paved the way for many restrictions on campaign financing to be overturned.  Two years later, a high amount of political donations stem from corporate-backed sources that can essentially influence other voters through television advertisements.  Perhaps American politics may be eventually overtaken by pure business interests, but online sources have exposed the numbers since bloggers frequently comment on Citizens United’s political impact.  In my next post, I will discuss how various political pundits have expressed their views on the Citizens United v. FEC.decision through blogs.


P.”The Case That Could Change The Race.” (Oct. 2009): LexisNexis Academic. Myrin Library, Collegeville,
PA, 5 Feb. 2012.  http://zack2.ursinus.edu:2100/lnacui2api/api/version1/getDocCui?lni=7WYD-J591-2R53-00GT&csi=3623&hl=t&hv=t&hnsd=f&hns=t&hgn=t&oc=00240&perma=true.

P.”The Citizens United Ruling.” (Mar. 2010): LexisNexis Academic. Myrin Library, Collegeville, PA, 5 Feb. 2012.