Five years ago this week, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decided to allow unlimited amounts of corporate spending in political campaigns. How important was that decision? At the time, some said criticism of the decision was overblown, and that fears that it would give outsize influence to powerful interests were unfounded. Now, the evidence is in, and the results are devastating. To coincide with the decision’s fifth anniversary, eight public interest organizations—the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Demos, U.S. PIRG, Public Campaign, Justice at Stake, and the Center for Media and Democracy—have simultaneously issued reports that demonstrate the steadily growing influence of money on elections since the Court’s decision. Their findings show that the case opened the spigot to well more than a billion dollars in unrestricted outside spending on political campaigns, by corporations and individuals alike. It has done so at a time when wealth and income disparities in the United States are at their highest levels since 1928. Increasingly, it’s not clear that your vote matters unless you’re also willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support your preferences. Some of this money has come directly from the kind of corporate money at issue in Citizens United. But much more of it has come from other kinds of funding made possible by the Court’s decision, whose rationale undermined expenditure limits across the board, not just for corporations. Take the 2014 midterm elections. Just eleven closely contested Senate races tipped the balance and allowed the Republicans to regain control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. In eight of the ten states for which data is available, outside groups outspent the candidates themselves, by many millions of dollars. In North Carolina, for example, outside groups spent $26 million more than the candidates did. With these kinds of numbers, elected politicians may feel as beholden to such groups as to the people who actually voted for them.
Much of the newly unrestricted funding came from so-called “super PACs,” political action committees that raise money exclusively for “independent expenditures,” usually television and radio advertisements. Citizens United did not itself involve super PACs, but the decision had the effect of freeing super PACs from any meaningful constraints. The Court ruled that the government has no legitimate interest in restricting “independent expenditures”—as opposed to contributions to candidates—because in its view, only contributions have the potential to corrupt candidates. Two months later, in March 2010, a federal court of appeals relied on that rationale to strike down all limits on how much individuals may give to super PACs, since they are organized exclusively for the purpose of “independent expenditures.”
According to the Brennan Center report, over the five years since these decisions, super PACs have spent more than one billion dollars on federal election campaigns. And because these organizations are free of any limits, they have proved to be magnets for those who have the resources to spend lavishly to further their interests. About 60 percent of that billion dollars has come from just 195 people. Those 195 individuals have only one vote each, but does anyone believe that their combined expenditure of over $600 million does not give them disproportionate influence on the politicians they have supported? The average contributions of those who give more than $200 to such super PACs are in the five- and six-figure range. The average donation over $200 to the ironically-named Ending Spending, a conservative PAC, was $502,188. This is a game played by, and for, the wealthy.