Behind the scenes of campaign finance: Rise of the super PAC

By Chad Hobbs


 In the last article, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BRCA) of 2002 was discussed. Though it was not a perfect reform to campaign finance laws, it was the most promising legislation to be passed in this area since the late 1970’s. That would all change in 2010.

 Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, wanted to release Hillary: The Movie in 2008 prior to the primary elections in which Hillary Clinton was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

 Section 203 of the BCRA stated that corporations and labor unions could not use their general funds to finance “electioneering communications,” or radio, TV, or satellite broadcasts that promote or denounce a federal political candidate within 60 days before a general election or within 30 days of a primary election.

 Citizens United filed an injunction against the Federal Election Commission, claiming Section 203 violated their right to free speech. They also charged that other parts of the act were unconstitutional, as well.

 Though the U.S. District Court ruled against Citizens United, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling from 2003 in McConnell vs. FEC, as to the constitutionality of the BRCA’s constitutionality, the Supreme Court agreed to review the decision.

 In 2010, a 5-4 verdict overturned the BRCA. Justice Anthony Kennedy held that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech; even it is a corporation speaking. This allowed for corporate funding of political support without limitation. Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens disagreed, stating that the constitutional right to free speech was to “individual Americans, not corporations,” and he feared that the decision would “undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”

 Though the Supreme Court did make it clear in their ruling that they believed political campaign dollars should be publicly disclosed to discourage corruption, it didn’t take long for big spenders to find a way around that. By forming nonprofit organizations which claimed tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations, the organizations did not have to disclose a donor’s identity.

 In another case in 2010, SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United’s case was used to justify eliminating the amount of money an organization could donate to a candidate. Prior to this, political action committees (PACs) could only donate up to $5,000 per candidate per year. With the limits on donations eliminated by the courts, super PACs would emerge. The sky would be the limit on how much they could spend on a candidate. In 2014, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice stated that from 2010-2014 super PACs would spend $1 billion on federal elections alone with 60 percent of those funds coming from a mere 195 individuals and their spouses.

 This isn’t a Republican or a Democrat problem. This is an American problem. It is long past time to put the lid back on this can of worms. A handful of mega rich donors are controlling our elections and the viable candidates in elections from the national level all the way down to local. How many great candidates have never been allowed to make the field due to millionaires and billionaires deciding whose voices are heard and whose aren’t, often in states where they do not even live. It’s time to pass legislation that kicks the wealth privileged out of their controlling seats in America’s elections. This is a government meant to be by the people, for the people, not by the rich, for the rich.


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