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Regulating Corporate Influence on Our Elections

CAP Event Looks at the Participation of Corporations in Federal Campaigns

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The Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society hosted a discussion Monday to mark the two-year anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), and to discuss the role corporate money is expected to play in the 2012 election season, as well as possible policies to undo it.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and that corporations or unions can spend money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including advertising. This ruling eased decades-old limitations on the participation of corporations in federal campaigns.

Since its announcment the decision has been a lightning rod for public criticism across the political spectrum. Recent Legal Progress surveys show that the vast majority of Americans disagree with the decision and do not believe that corporations are the same as people, or that they should have the same rights as individuals in the political process.

In her opening remarks, American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson said, “As we follow the constant news reports of the latest super PAC ads in the Republican primaries, one has to wonder what limits remain on corporate spending in elections, and how can we best protect our democracy.” A super PAC is a political action committee that, although it can’t coordinate directly with a political campaign, can raise unlimited sums from corporations and have lax donor disclosure requirements.

A panel discussion followed Fredrickson’s remarks. Moderated by E.J. Dionne, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and Washington Post columnist, the panel included Jeff Clements, co-founder of and general counsel for Free Speech for People; Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and Monica Youn, Brennan Center constitutional fellow at the NYU School of Law.

Sloan discussed corporate campaign donations, saying that Super PACs “in this election cycle … are allowing candidates who otherwise would not still be in the race to be in the race.” She noted that “Newt Gingrich would no longer be with us in this presidential race if it hadn’t been for [CEO of Sands Corp.] Sheldon Adelson’s $5 million contribution, which allowed him to flood the airwaves with some pretty negative ads about [Mitt] Romney” right before last weekend’s South Carolina primary.

She added that money from super PACs has “dwarfed campaign spending [by] the presidential candidates themselves. In Iowa alone, it is believed that super PACs outspent the candidates themselves by 2-to-1.”

While Super PACs and campaigns have to report donations to the Federal Election Commission, or FEC, Sloan said, c4 organizations—“social welfare organizations that are allegedly engaged in charitable activities, and can’t engage in electoral activities as their primary purpose”—are not required to do so. Super PAC donors, therefore, are still able to remain anonymous by using c4 organizations as middlemen.

But there’s still room for improvement. Although Citizens United was a “terribly bad decision,” Youn said that Congress needs to do more to fight super PACs.

“All of these things,” she said, “are not foreclosed by Citizens United, and are just a failure of political will that I think we need to be on them about.”

She also said that the Obama administration needs to make changes within the Federal Elections Commission. “Five out of the six commissioners of the FEC,” she noted, “are now acting under expired terms.”

Clements then discussed fighting the Citizens United decision, which includes “overturn[ing] the framework” and getting it amended. He said the decision is “the corporate trump card over the public interest, and that’s true whether you’re conservative, progressive, or in between.”

Overall, the panelists agreed that something needs to be done to fight Citizens United and the influence of corporations on campaigns. Sloan said that “It’s really up to all of us to be vigilant and demand change.”

Following the panel discussion, Director of CAP’s Legal Progress Andrew Blotky made closing remarks. “This obviously is an issue that … transcends policy issues, constituencies, people across the income spectrum, across the political spectrum. It’s something that we will be obviously working on together in the months and years ahead.”

For more on this event, please see its event page.

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