Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Landmark Decision: Citizens United and Washington

Capitol Hill is becoming increasingly affected by the Citizen's United ruling. (Photo: Catherine Cloutier)Slightly more than a year after going into effect, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is having a profound effect on national and local politics.

Citizens United — as it is commonly called — reversed the ban on corporate spending on political broadcasts and introduced the rather controversial notion that corporations should be treated the same as ordinary citizens under the First Amendment.

The previous campaign finance law was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, which prohibited all corporations —including non-profit organizations — from airing "electioneering communications" within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary.

During the 2008 primaries, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United — which describes its mission as fighting to "restore our government to citizens' control" — sought to air a promotional advertisement for the documentary "Hillary: The Movie."

Because it would have aired within 30 days of the election, the ad was blocked for being in breach of McCain-Feingold. Firing back, Citizens United claimed a violation of the Bill of Rights and took its case to court.

"Citizens United v. FEC is the best chance that we have to overturn some of the most egregiously restrictive aspects of campaign finance law. This is a historic opportunity to strike a blow for the First Amendment," said Ted Olson, the lead counsel for Citizens United during the case.

While the lower courts found in favor of the McCain-Feingold Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 21, 2010 that the ban was an impingement on the First Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, it opined that the government had no Constitutional right to regulate campaign finance as it is a form of political speech, and that corporations, unions and organizations enjoy the same First Amendment rights as ordinary citizens.

That decision, by extension, meant that corporations could make independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures without disclosing them to the FEC.

"[Citizens United] opened the playing field up to voices from the right, more free-enterprise-oriented, less government-oriented voices to come into the process," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican political strategist, in Politico on the anniversary of the ruling.

But politicos working on and around the Hill have seen a drastic shift in the way the political game is played since the ruling. Independent campaign spending is increasing with no regulation, transparency or disclosure.

"[There's such a great] amount of money gushing in and the public knows so little about it," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

From a campaign fundraising standpoint, that influx of money means the cost of running for office is increasing dramatically.

"There were campaigns this last time (the 2010 election) where third party spending was more than the [House] candidates'," said Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli. "And they spend a couple million."

Fraioli expects that the spending will skyrocket during the 2012 election cycle.

But Douglas Clopp of "good government" advocacy group Common Cause believes the Citizens United ruling has far more serious implications than simply increasing the cost of campaigning.

Clopp said he believes that as big corporations gain power in influencing elections, politicians will favor them over individuals even more when making decisions.

"This interest of this money in politics is paralyzing our government to the point where it cannot come to the aid of its people," he said.

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