Citizens United successfully challenged the decision of the Federal Electoral Commission not to distribute anti-Hilary documentation during the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries after a decision from the Supreme Court at the start of 2010 ruled in favour of the case presented by Citizens United.
This research paper intends to explore the history of the campaign for finance reform in the United States as well as the case presented by Citizens United to the Supreme Court in favour of their argument that corporations have the same rights as citizens. This research paper will examine the influence that unlimited money can have on U.S. politics as well as the attempts to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision from interest groups, social movements, elected officials and judges.
Campaign for Finance Reform and Citizens United Case
The campaign for finance reform originates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a result of the social and economic changes brought about by the expansion of corporate capitalism in the United States (Mutch 2014: 1). It appeared that the rise of big corporations was deeply unsettling for many of its citizens considering that many of these big corporations funded the two main political parties in the United States (the Republicans and the Democrats) (Mutch 2014: 1). However, the Citizens United vs. Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) case in 2009 triggered the Supreme Court into investigating whether or not an anti-Hilary Clinton document produced by Citizens United, an ideological group that takes for-profit corporate funding, violated rules on corporate spending in federal elections (Smith et al 2010: 131). This research paper intends to investigate the history of the campaign finance for finance reform and the Citizens United case in particular. There will be an exploration as to whether or not unlimited money in politics is generally a bad thing for democracy and there will be an examination behind the actions to reverse the Citizens United case and who was behind it e.g. movements like Occupy.
Discuss the history of the campaign for finance reform and the Citizens United case
America has had a long history of resisting corruption in regards to funding political campaigns since Benjamin Franklin was awarded a political gift to help finance his own campaign back in 1785 from King Louis XVI of France (Teachout 2014: 9). This is because these kinds of donations were largely associated with the old order of doing things in Europe that the Americans had fought so hard to defeat during the American War of Independence 1775-1783 (Teachout 2014: 9).
In 1905, life insurance firms were investigated as it was discovered that corporate contributions were linked to Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign in 1904 due to the discovery of private correspondence that was stolen from a railroad mogul which specified that two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars was raised during a White House meeting for the 1904 presidential campaign (Mutch 2014: 3). During Roosevelt’s and William Howard Taft’s presidencies, Congress passed the Tillman Act of 1907 which prevented big corporations from making campaign contributions and placed limits on campaign expenditure (Mutch 2014: 1). This was later extended to trade unions by a conservative coalition in 1943 and made permanent under the Taft-Harley Act in 1947 despite actions by the Congress of Political Action to create a political action committee, provide a legal definition between expenditures and contributions and to challenge it through the Supreme Court during the United States vs. CIO case (Mutch 2014: 8). However, justices thought that this law only challenged the First Amendment if the government applied it to political editorials in labour organisations (Mutch 2014: 8). During the Watergate scandal of 1972, it appeared many gifts had been declared as secret, so an agency was later introduced to help enforce these laws (Mutch 2014: 3).
In 2008, the FEC blocked a move by Citizens United to air their anti-Hilary documentary during the Democratic Party primary through a cable television video-on-demand service and sponsor advertisements for it on television by arguing that it was a long advert promoting the defeat of a presidential candidate and sponsored through corporate money (Smith et al 2010: 131). Citizens United confronted the move by arguing that it challenged the free speech of corporate organisations (Smith et al 2010: 131). After listening to a second round of arguments in September 2009, the Supreme Court voted in favour of Citizens United’s case by five to four by arguing that the government cannot ban corporate spending during presidential elections (Smith et al 2010: 131).
Why is unlimited money in politics a bad thing?
After the Citizens United case, Congress had approved of a bill in July 2014 that allowed individuals to increase by a tenth what they can contribute towards political campaigns (Rauch 2015: 1). Rauch (2015) argues that unlimited money in politics is a good thing because ‘transactional’ politics is necessary for good government and governance as democracy cannot function if political leaders cannot make good deals e.g. buying the support of post offices as necessary if the alternatives were worse (1).
Nonetheless, Teachout (2014) suggests that the Citizens United case proved why unlimited money is a bad thing for politics because private interests can influence the public sphere through material produced by big corporations such as the anti-Hilary material of the 2008 presidential elections (9). Unlimited money can be seen as a bad thing because it can undermine representative government by changing policies to favour specific interests (Teachout 2014: 9). Unlimited money can be seen as dodgy, as demonstrated when William Jefferson hid roles of cash in his freezer (Teachout 2014: 9). Finally, unlimited money can be used to punish political enemies if politicians can promise to help specific interest groups, such as teachers’ groups, in return for an endorsement (Teachout 2014: 9).
Discuss the movement to reverse the Citizens United case and who is behind it. What actions have been taken by interest groups, social movements such as Occupy, elected officials and others?
There have been many moves by elected officials to reverse the Citizens United case, such as Senator Chuck Schumer of New York wanting to reverse the Court’s decision due to its ‘un-American’ pitch (Blackwell & Klukowski 2011: 353). During his State of Union address in 2010, President Barack Obama attempted to embarrass the Court by suggesting the Court’s decision allows foreign corporations to donate towards political campaigns when Citizens United was actually a domestic organisation, removing the calls from Obama for a statutory bar to block foreign sponsoring of American elections (Blackwell & Klukowski 2011: 353). Obama intervened to call for it to be reversed because Obama argued that the Court’s decision reversed the Tillman Act of 1907, when the Court’s decision instead allowed big corporations to make independent donations as opposed to donations towards political campaigns (Blackwell & Klukowski 2011: 353). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. district defended the Court’s decision by arguing that the Court had cited twenty-three previous court cases whereby the Supreme Court held that corporations also have First Amendment rights, rather like individuals (Blackwell & Klukowski 2011: 353).
Chief Justice Roberts ultimately changed his mind in the end about whether or not to issue a narrow sweeping of the Citizens United case (Cressman 2016: 100). This came before the Court issued its final opinion, arguing that justices have some room to swing back and forth until they announce a public position by collaborating with an opinion, or joining in with dissent (Cressman 2016: 100). In order to amend a precedent, the Supreme Court should examine a similar case and reach a conclusion (Cressman 2016: 100). This explains why the Supreme Court very rarely has an opportunity to reverse themselves (Cressman 2016: 100). Nevertheless, there is a belief among many legislators that it is improper to overrule the Supreme Court, which is why Congress is reluctant to introduce an amendment that would allow the Supreme Court’s decisions to be reversed in certain cases (Cressman 2016: 100). However, because the judges involved in the Citizens United case have changed since the decision was made, any vote to reverse a decision previously made by the Court could have a significant impact on the American Constitution (Cressman 2016: 100).
Despite this, it was not just elected officials and judges who attempted to reverse the Court’s decision, but interest groups such as Move to Amend and Common Cause as well as social movements like Occupy (Heath et al 2013: 29). The Occupy Movement has successfully organised many events since the Court’s decision in 2010 on the Citizens United case (Heath et al 2013: 29). During 2011, Occupy organised building offshoots such as Occupy the Courts (Heath et al 2013: 29). On January 12th 2012, Oregon Occupy activists worked with Move to Amend and Common Cause to pressure city commissioners to approve a resolution that ensures corporations do not have the same rights as citizens (Heath et al 2013: 29). On January 12th 2012, hundreds of demonstrators met in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square demanding a constitutional amendment to suggest that corporations are not the same as people in the United States (Heath et al 2013: 29).
The campaign for finance reform has been an issue in U.S. politics since the early twentieth century. It is clear that many Americans have had an issue with their politicians accepting generous gifts since the eighteenth century after Franklin’s controversial acceptance of a gift from King Louis XVI of France in 1785. This is due to their associations with the old order of doing things in Europe. Successive presidents and moves by Congress since Theodore Roosevelt’s controversial acceptance of two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars raised at a secret White House meeting in 1904 have ensured that big corporations are regulated in the way that they finance political campaigns. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in favour of Citizens United publishing anti-Hilary material during the 2008 presidential campaign and acceptance of money from corporations has reopened the doors to allow corporations to influence how American politics is financed. Despite this, individuals’ contributions towards political campaigns has now increased by a tenth since July 2014. It seems that the campaign for finance reform during political campaigns in the United States is an issue that is unlikely to evaporate from people’s minds any time soon.
Blackwell, Ken & Klukowski, Ken (2011). Who tried to reverse the Citizens United case? New York: Simon and Schuster.
Cressman, Derek (2016). When Money Talks: The High Price of ‘Free’ Speech and the Selling of Democracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Heath, Renee Guarriello, Fletcher, Courtney Vail & Munoz, Ricardo (2013). Understanding Occupy from Wall Street to Portland: Applied Studies in Communication Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Mutch, Robert E. (2014). Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rauch, Jonathan (2015). Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back- Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Press.
Smith, Melissa M., Williams, Glenda C., Powell, Larry, Copeland, Gary A., (2010). Campaign Finance Reform: The Political Shell Game. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Teachout, Zephyr (2014). Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuffbox to Citizens United. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.