The Lowdown on Citizens United and Campaign Contributions

In 2010, a court case known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission changed the structure of campaign financing in a big way. At first, my impression was that it removed all limits from corporate spending on a particular candidate. It didn’t. Not exactly anyway.

What it did explicitly was make it so a corporation’s advertisements for a particular candidate are now protected under the First Amendment. If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, believe me, it is. This means that corporate interests can spend an unlimited amount advertising for a particular candidate as long as that spending is not directly coordinated by the candidate’s campaign.

But what is campaigning, if it is not advertisement? Filming campaign commercials, purchasing TV spots, putting up signs, designing and sending out mailers… This all costs money, and now corporations can spend as much as they want on it.

Legally and technically, corporations that pay for advertisements are not directly giving to campaigns. But there is no real reason why the campaign could not direct the corporation on the advertisements (as long as no money changes hands), and this effectively means that corporations can spend an unlimited amount on campaigns. You can see what this has meant practically here.

So Citizens United radically altered the balance of power in elections. It puts a huge amount of sway in the hands of corporate interests and lobbyists since the aggregate limit for individual contributions has not changed. But there is a Supreme Court decision in the air that could change that, thus removing almost all limitations on campaign finance: McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission.

A New York Times article summarized some of the arguments:

Should the court agree that some overall limits are unconstitutional, the decision could represent a reassessment of a basic distinction established in a 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which said contributions may be regulated more strictly than expenditures because of their potential for corruption.


Independent spending, the court said, is political speech protected by the First Amendment. But contributions may be capped, the court said, in the name of preventing corruption.


The effect of the distinction is to allow unlimited spending from rich people, corporations and unions so long as the spending is not coordinated with the candidate they support. Several justices suggested that it makes no sense in such an environment to limit direct contributions to candidates and parties.


“It’s not that we’re stopping people from spending big money on politics,” Justice Scalia said.

Exactly. Corporations obviously have a greater ability than individuals to avoid indictments for campaign finance fraud (Sorry, Dinesh D’Souza). In the current environment, removing individual aggregate limitations seems the most even-handed thing to do, but it will and can result in only more bought politicians and bought elections.

Whose fault is all of this? Ours. Average citizens do not vote on the basis of political ideology, content of character, voting records, etc. They are easy targets for big money advertisements because they don’t actually assess the issues or the candidates—they just vote for the talking head that most inundates their lemming-visions. Until that starts to change, money is and will be the final arbiter of this democracy.