Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Unlimited Corruption of Citizens United: What to do about campaign financing?

Citizens United v. FEC threw the rule book out the window.  It blew everyone's mind, not the least of which were corporate executives.  Now, instead of sending candidates and parties voluntary donations from employees to run advertisements, they could send millions scooped out of their multi-billion dollar businesses,  Of course, it was the company's money, meaning the shareholders, but that didn't seem to bother anyone in 2010.

The Campaign Legal Center reported on financing behavior and reporting in 2010 in the wake of Citizens United.  The arena had become increasingly deregulated and opaque, a regular free-for-all.  For the first time in 60 years, corporations and unions could spend their own funds on ads expressly advocating the defeat or election of a candidate.  They could spend it directly or direct the money to an outside group like a tax-exempt foundation which didn't have to disclose donors.

Psychologically corporate executives behaved very differently than they had in the past.  Armed with the SCOTUS seal of approval, they felt little worry about shareholders or consumers and had tax-exempt vehicles as safe houses guaranteeing their anonymity:

[C]orporate executives are feeling freer to act on their perceived economic and ideological interests and to spend corporate funds--rather than money from their own pocket--to support business-friendly candidates.

How do you stuff the reckless forces unleashed by Citizens United back into Pandora's box?  One suggestion is greater disclosure.  Who is funding these "special interests"?  How are they benefiting?  Are foreign interests involved?  Do oil and gas men supply seed money for the new Chair of the Energy Committee?

Unfortunately, disclosure rules are looser than ever.  Corporations can funnel their advocacy money into 501(c)(4)s or 501(c)(6)s, tax-exempt groups which can run election ads without revealing their donors.  In most cases, the FEC requires disclosure only when a donor targets a particular ad.  Because the fundraising is done before specific ads are created, the need for disclosure is negligible.

In 2004, 71% of disclosure reports filed with the FEC detailed the names and associations of donors.  In 2010, only 15% of disclosure reports gave the source of their funds.  Most of the 501(c) groups didn't disclose at all.  No one knows who's giving to whom or what.  Another neutered FEC rule: 501(c) groups cannot have political activity as their primary focus but in practice they often do.

Without enforceable and rigorous disclosure rules, how will we know whose buying our representatives and how much they cost?  Who is benefiting from "special interest" spending?  What's the quid pro quo?  Make public who the beneficiaries are in hopes they may be embarrassed and behave (although that's dubious).  Another suggestion is to reveal how politicians vote in response to the business interests their lobbyists represent.  Perhaps we can try a go-round with public financing, especially for Presidential candidates.  Big-money influence is very powerful in Washington, but cynicism and corruption is costing the American people a fortune. 

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