"The US experiment in self-governing democracy died
with the most consequential Supreme Court ruling in US history:
Citizen's United." Garikai Chengu
TV stations are hot commodities in the wake of the
Court’s infamous Citizens United decision freeing up billions of Super
PAC and dark money dollars that flow down by the billions to broadcast
and cable operators each election cycle. So the bazaar never closes.
TVNewsCheck.com recently reported that nearly 300 stations worth over
$8 billion changed hands last year alone, up 367 percent in value from
2012. Just recently the FCC has approved major transactions involving
Tribune, Sinclair, and Gannett. To make matters worse, companies have
devised clever strategies to end-run the FCC’s ownership rules through
arrangements that allow them to control stations they do not
technically own. The [FCC] Commission needs to come down hard on these
J. Copps 3/2014 CJR
The Supreme Court, by adopting an ahistorical and
improperly narrow view of corruption, has shut down an exploration of
the very real threat that unrestricted campaign spending actually
posses to our democracy....corruption, broadly understood as placing
private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root
of what ails American democracy. (from David Cole's, New York Review of
Books review of, Corruption
in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United:
It will of course take some time to distill what occurred in the
2012 elections — and some things may well stay secret forever
— but we already know quite a bit.
Of course, anyone who watches TV or listens to commercial radio in
a battleground state knows from personal experience that things
have gone awry. But it’s not that easy to get a
bird’s-eye view of the overall electoral landscape.
Consider in combination these 10 observations on the
electoral scene. It’s worse than you may realize. But
don’t be discouraged. Be motivated.
1. Record sums are being spent on the election.
Spending on federal elections will exceed $6 billion, far more than
any previous election, according to projections from the Center for
2. A torrent of outside money is flowing into the election,
exceeding $1 billion.
Because of Citizens United, Super PACs and other outside
groups are spending spectacular sums. Karl Rove’s Crossroads
operations say they will spend $300 million. The Koch Brothers have
said they will raise and give $400 million. And the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce aims to spend $100 million.
3. A very small number of super-rich and corporate donors are
fueling the outside groups.
Led by casino magnate and billionaire-25-times-over Sheldon
Adelson, the top 100 individual contributors account for almost
three-quarters of all the money raised by Super PACs. There’s
every reason to think an even smaller group is powering the outside
groups that do not disclose their donors.
4. Dark money is casting a dark shadow over the
Groups organized as social welfare organizations or trade
associations do not need to disclose the donors fueling their
campaign-related spending. Corporations in particular are
exploiting the opportunity for secrecy. The U.S. Chamber of
Commerce maintains a $200 million annual budget, and says it will
spend $100 million on the 2012 elections. But in 2011, corporations
that disclosed their contributions to the Chamber gave between $10
million and $12 million (some disclose ranges of donations only).
Of that total, only $3.5 million were non-tax-deductible
contributions that can be used for political spending — just
a tiny fraction of the
corporate money funneled through the Chamber for campaign
5. Outside money is fueling nasty, negative attack ads on an
Virtually all of the outside money is going to attack ads. More
than 90 percent of Rove’s Crossroads spending has been spent
against candidates; all of the money by the Obama-supporting
Priorities USA; more than 90 percent of the spending by the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce. Outside groups are spending money on attack
ads because they work. Candidates, however, are somewhat deterred
from running attack ads, because voters may hold them accountable
for the tone of their campaign. Outside groups aren’t
accountable to anyone (except their handful of funders) and
therefore aren’t deterred at all.
6. The post-Citizens United world is helping
a financial oligarchy.
Of the roughly 50 individuals who have given $1 million or more to
Super PACs, about a third come from the financial world. Overall,
Wall Street and the financial sector are pouring far more money
into the 2012 elections than any other industry; the industry has
spent almost twice as much on the presidential race as any
Wall Street’s money is heavily Republican this year, but Wall
Street is not inherently tied to the Republican Party. In 2008, the
financial sector leaned significantly Democratic, with about 54
percent of its political donations going to Dems.
As important as where their money is going is how much the
financial titans are spending. This reflects their shrill
opposition to the modest Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation,
yes; but perhaps an even more important reason that the Big Finance
guys are spending so much is that so much wealth is concentrated in
the financial sector. Big Finance has been unreasonably enriched by
the current system — at the very direct and visible expense
of the rest of us — and now they are spending a tiny portion
of their riches to lock in that system.
7. With all eyes on the presidential race, outside money is
having a bigger impact on congressional elections.
With his hundreds of millions, Karl Rove can afford to spend to
influence the presidential contest. But most of the outside groups
are focusing their spending on congressional elections. In the
contest for the Ohio Senate seat currently held by Sherrod Brown,
for example, outside groups have spent more than $32 million.
Outside groups have spent more than $10 million in a dozen senate
races. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has
thrown at least $100,000 at 35 races.
8. Spending by outside groups is affecting state and local
elections, including judicial races, across the country.
More than three-quarters of states elect judges or vote to retain
them. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saw an
opportunity to influence jurisprudence by spending big in state
judicial elections. Outside interest spending is now increasingly
common in state judicial elections. In North Carolina, R.J.
Reynolds and other corporate interests have poured $800,000 into a
state supreme court race.
Comparable sums are deluging other state and local races across the
country. Example: the oil giant Chevron has spent $1.2 million on a
local political committee to back three city council candidates in
Richmond, California, where the company operates a large oil
refinery plagued by safety violations.
9. Candidate-specific Super PACs are making a mockery of
individual campaign donation limits and the notion that outside
groups are independent of candidates.
An individual can donate a maximum of $5,000 to a candidate ($2,500
each for the primary and general election). Give to a
candidate-specific Super PAC, however, and the sky is the limit.
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have donated $20 million to the
Romney-supporting Super PAC, Restore Our Future. And congressional
candidate-specific Super PACs are prevalent: A recent Public
report found that nearly 60 percent of the Super PACs active in
the 2012 election are devoted to supporting or defeating a single
candidate, many funded (and/or managed) by friends and allies of
the candidate they support.
The Citizens United decision was explicitly premised on the
idea that outside election spending was independent of candidates
and therefore could not be corrupting — an implausible theory
that cannot be reconciled with the prevalence of candidate-specific
Super PACs with a limited pool of very high donors.
10. All this spending makes a huge difference.
It’s not the case that the candidate with the most money
wins, but the spending certainly affects election outcomes. In
found (pdf) that outside groups backed the winning candidate in
60 of the 75 congressional races in which power changed hands. But
the impact is even more profound than this kind of analysis
suggests. The outside groups define the tone of the campaigns,
often establish the terms of debate, and affect the entire national
race in ways not easily quantified (for example, by forcing
opponents to spend limited resources on races that otherwise would
be safe). The need for candidates to raise extraordinary sums
forces them to spend lots of time with the ultra-wealthy, and less
time with regular people; it also makes them more accountable to
donors and less to everyone else.
And, no matter who wins, the big money spenders obtain massively
enhanced power to set the national policy agenda — including
by taking popular measures off the table. As one House of
Representatives staffer asked during a congressional briefing on
the effects of the Citizens United decision, “How do I
say ‘no’ to a deep-pocketed corporate lobbyist who now
has all the resources necessary to defeat my boss in the next
Things can’t continue like this.
If we care about our country, we simply can’t let this go on.
We need to do some relatively small things — like force disclosure
of the Dark Money flowing into the elections. We
need to do some big things, too. We need
public financing of our public elections. And we need a constitutional
amendment to overturn Citizens United and
restore democracy to the people.
Over this past year, we’ve done important and remarkable work
together. Disclosure remedies are now within reach. And we’ve
made dramatic progress in the long effort to win a constitutional
Whatever happens on Election Day, it’s time to move to the
next level. We’re going to expand and deepen the grassroots
movement to reclaim our democracy, and put an end to the dominance
of Big Money.
P.S. A note on the data in this message: Our friends at the Center
for Responsive Politics are the universally replied
upon, go-to source for money-in-politics data. They do a great deal
of analysis, and also provide much of the raw data upon which
Public Citizen bases its own analyses.