Citizens United and the Mark Left on Campaign Finance Law

Sep 18, 2018

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, enacted in March 2002, aimed to limit the amount of financial support interest groups and national political parties could provide to a specific campaign. In 2010, a historic court ruling overturned the reform act. Dr. Kevin Qualls, associate professor in MSU's Department of Mass Communications and Journalism, visits Sounds Good to talk about the significant change created in campaign finance law.

Citizens United is a conservative political advocacy group whose stated mission is to "restore our government to citizens' control...through a combination of education, advocacy, and grassroots organization." Citizens United took the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, led by the late Senator John McCain and Senator Russ Feingold, to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it encroached on the group's rights laid out in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision to overturn the reform act has shaped a new era of financial campaign law. 

The major issue of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was a perceived limitation of the first amendment right to free speech. In this case, Citizens United claimed that, according to the right to free speech, the U.S. government is prohibited from restricting independent expenditures for communications by non-profit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other civil organizations. Dr. Kevin Qualls explains that using the first amendment as the basis for a case allows agencies to bypass drawn out legal procedures saved for federal organizations. "If you're dealing with a federal agency," Dr. Kevin Qualls states, "...you have to go through all the agency procedures on appeal. Unless there's a fundamental right involved -- if a fundamental right is involved, you can go straight to court." 

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was founded on a system in which individuals gave limitied, disclosed contributions to parties, PACs (Political Action Committees), and candidates. After the Citizens United vs. FEC case, individuals and organizations were able to give hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of dollars to parties, PACs, and candidates without disclosure. This has created a surge of 'dark money,' or money that is untraced, within the U.S. political campaign system. 

'Dark money' is largely a result of a new phenomena called 'synthetic grassroots movements,' or 'astro-turfing.' Synthetic grassroots movements use titles that are indicative of citizen action or importance, such as Citizens United, Alliance to Keep Americans Working, etc., while being entirely funded by corporate interest. These pseudo-non-profit organizations' contributions have significant influence over the outcome of an election. "Or, as we're seeing right now," Qualls explains, "the nomination of someone for the Supreme Court. This is the first time I've ever seen this happen."

Dr. Qualls gives an example of a corporate organization currently working to influence the Supreme Court nomination out of their own interest. "The NRA is not even forming a group, they're not making some citizens' group, they're actually doing it in their own name. They have a seven figure campaign right now going on in several districts across the country, telling people to tell your senator to confirm Kavanaugh because he will protect your second amendment rights." Since the Supreme Court is currently split fairly evenly on second amendment right issues, the next appointed justice can make a larger impact based on their political standing. 

The U.S. Consititution, written in the late 18th century, is frequently found under modern scrutiny. With the advancement of technology, politics, and society as a whole, there are disagreements regarding how to best analyze the over 200 year old document in a present-day context. "I think the problem for all of us," Dr. Qualls states, "is that [corporate implementation of first amendment rights] distorts the political process in that money goes into it, we don't know from where the money comes, and it's used in groups that disguise who they really are by astroturfing and financing things that change public policy." 

"I hear people talk about Citizens United all the time...it is still a very big deal, it has snowballed into what we're seeing today. I'm not sure that many people really appreciate what impact that has had in our political process, and continues to have, and that maybe that's something we should consider -- is whether we should overturn that decision and return politics more to something that truly is natural grassroots," Dr. Qualls concludes.