When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to political free speech, it set loose a tidal wave of campaign money that helped elect a new Congress in 2010 and is now reshaping the presidential race. But the impact of the Citizens United decision has been as surprising and controversial as the ruling itself. Although the high court’s 5-4 decision is best known for saying that corporations may spend freely on campaign ads, the gusher of money pouring into this year’s campaigns has mostly not involved corporate funds. And some of the practices that critics of the decision decry actually stem from a separate case decided by a U.S. Court of Appeals after the Citizens United ruling. The rise of “super PACs,” which may raise and spend unlimited amounts so long as they do so independently of a candidate, has allowed close aides to candidates to set up supposedly independent committees that have raised huge amounts, primarily from wealthy individuals. The PACs have spent most of their money on negative ads attacking the opposition. That unlimited fundraising was set in motion by Citizens United, but came to full flower after the subsequent Court of Appeals decision.
By design or happenstance, a two-track campaign funding system has been created: One features small donors and strict regulation; the other exists for the very wealthy, who are largely freed from regulation. Exasperated defenders of the campaign funding laws see the Citizens United decision as a historic blunder that has all but destroyed not just the 1940s limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, but the post-Watergate reforms as well. This week, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, they are asking the justices to reconsider the Citizens United ruling by taking up a case from Montana that raises some of the same issues.