In a profound challenge to the rationale of the Citizens United decisions, the US Court of Appeals in Washington ruled yesterday against a group of plaintiffs seeking to lift the federal ban on campaign donations by government contractors. The unanimous decision in the case upheld a Federal Elections Commission regulation meant to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest that has been on the books since 1940.
The plaintiffs’ arguments were driven largely by the notorious Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutcheon vs. FEC, which removed all limits on campaign contributions by corporations and individuals respectively. The disturbing rationale in both of those 2010 cases was that money used for political purposes constituted a form of “speech” and was therefore protected under the First Amendment, while corporations were, for practical judicial purposes, “people.” Yesterday’s ruling in Washington marked the first time that these ludicrous arguments have been struck down by a federal court, and thus marked an important first step towards the repeal of Citizens United.
For anyone who needs a reminder (or is still in shock at the besmirching of our democracy), the Citizens United rulings have ushered in an age of unfettered campaign spending in which politics has become totally polluted by money. Large corporations and private donors now regularly contribute sums on the order of tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars to campaigns, leading to numerous under-the-radar instances of quid-pro-quo corruption and leaving politicians’ agendas up to the discretion of the highest bidder rather than their citizen constituencies. It is estimated that some $4.5 billion dollars will be spent in the 2016 presidential election, which is half again what is needed to bail the city of Detroit out of debt. The winning candidate will have to shell out about $1.5 million to buy their position. And that’s just one election cycle.
Worse still, secretive campaign finance regulations meant to protect the “speech” of these corporation-people have led to a proliferation of Super PACs and other shady organizations that are registered as non-profits or non-partisan lobbying groups but in fact function as funnels for wealthy donors to give to campaigns without their donations becoming public knowledge, something that is very handy in avoiding suspicions of corruption. Wealthy Republican donors like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson have used the cover provided by these regulations to buy off politicians’ support towards their nefarious ends, and have in the process shifted the entire tone of the Republican Party towards a more divisive, extremist, and rightist position. Unsurprisingly, the Republican politicians now in the pocket of these big donors have without irony rushed to cheer the supposedly democratizing influence of unlimited corporate money in politics.
Yesterday’s decision, however, is a reassuring sign that all hope is not lost, and hopefully marks the beginning of the re-introduction of sensible campaign finance laws. In another promising sign, the American people, unlike those in power, understand that there can be no democracy when money equals speech. A recent New York Times poll found that a whopping 85% of Americans believe that the nation needs to fundamentally redesign the way its campaigns are financed. As is so often the case, our nation’s leaders have been behind the trend of public sentiment. The Appellate Court decision, however, could – and hopefully will – mark the end of our leaders’ tacit endorsement of pay-to-play democracy.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.