Most of what you hear about Citizens United v. FEC is negative. By opening the door for corporations to spend unlimited sums in elections and to allow for the creation of super PACs, the Supreme Court has made a campaign finance system that was already flooded with money much worse. But Citizens United obviously has its defenders, and they have advanced a number of arguments to try to blunt criticism of the Supreme Court’s controversial decision: The public actually learns from the flood of negative advertising coming from these super PACs; super PACS increase competition; The Supreme Court’sCitizens United decision didn’t create super PACs, so stop blaming the court for the flood of dollars and the negative campaign ads they buy.
This last argument has recently gained a lot of traction, and has been made by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, his son the legal commentator Dan Abrams (who accused the media of “shameful, inexcusable conduct” in describing the Citizens United-super PAC connection), columnist George Will, and the Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer. The argument goes like this: The Supreme Court back in 1976 held that individuals had a constitutional right to spend unlimited sums on elections. And before Citizens United, rich individuals like George Soros gave large sums of money to so-called “527 organizations” (named after an obscure section of the tax code) with innocuous names like “Americans Coming Together.” These 527 organizations were just like super PACs, so there’s nothing new here.
This line of attack is so strong and insistent that the New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, felt it necessary to weigh in on whether the paper’s stories tying Citizens United to super PACs were fair. (He concluded they were, but that the truth was complicated.) The purpose of the drumbeat appears to be to insulate the Supreme Court from further criticism of the Frankenstein’s monster they’ve created.
It is true that before Citizens United people could spend unlimited sums on independent advertising directly supporting or opposing candidates. 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. During the 2008 Democratic primary season, Bob Bauer, candidate Obama’s lawyer, barged in on a pro-Hillary Clinton conference call to say that people giving to 527s to support Clinton could face criminal liability.