In post-election statements, both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep.-elect Rick Nolan called for campaign finance reform. They singled out the role of big money and negative ads in campaigns, demanding among other things, an overturning of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Campaign-finance reform is needed, but the American election system is broken, demanding even broader changes beyond reversing Citizens United. These changes extend to the role of money in politics, voting, and the quality of political debate and information. Citizens United is one of many Supreme Court decisions that try to define the role of money and speech in American elections. Concern that money corrupts the political process goes back to the 19th century. Beginning in 1907 with the Tillman Act, federal law made it illegal for corporations to make direct political contributions to candidates for federal office. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act did the same for labor unions.
Many states have similar laws. The concern, especially with corporations, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once stated in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) is that the government might reasonably fear that a “corporation would use its economic power to obtain further benefits beyond those already bestowed.” The task is now to prevent the conversion of resources amassed in the economic marketplace from corrupting the political marketplace.
What Citizens United actually did was to say that corporations (and unions) have a First Amendment right to make direct expenditures from their treasuries to make independent expenditures to advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate for office. The decision did not overturn the ban on direct contributions to candidates, but it overturned laws that made it illegal for corporations to spend money independently to support a candidate for office.
Is Citizens United responsible for the $6-8 billion election cycle spending that just concluded? Yes and no. Prior to Citizens United, corporations already had lots of ways of getting around the law. They could do issue ads that attacked candidates but did not expressly urge their election or defeat. They could set up political action committees. They could fund get-out-the-vote, voter-registration, and voter-education programs. Individual corporate officers could give money. There were many ways around the law.