Russ Feingold

September 17th, 2012

The Scandal of Citizens United
On December 10, 2003, the Supreme Court upheld McCain-Feingold – the law John McCain and I championed to end unlimited donations to the political parties. The Court affirmed what I long believed – that commonsense rules-of-the-road for our system of campaign financing are both Constitutional and necessary. Quoting Elihu Root, the majority declared that corporate influence in politics is a “constantly growing evil which has done more to shake the confidence of plain people of small means of this country in our political institutions than any other practice which has ever obtained since the foundation of our Government.”

And for several election cycles, our system of elections began falling back into the hands of the people, especially as candidates and campaigns began harnessing the power of the Internet to engage new communities. But then, breaking over one hundred years of precedent with its lawless Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court opened the doors for corporations to use their treasuries to directly influence the outcome of our elections.

We must begin now to undue the damage done by overturning the decision itself. And in the mean time, Congress can begin to mitigate the damaging effects by passing robust disclosure laws, replacing the worthless Federal Elections Commission, and beginning the path towards public funding of federal elections.

Historically, Congress has only legislated how we fund our elections after a scandal breaks. National campaign reform was passed in the 1970’s in response to the Watergate fiasco. And, of course, McCain-Feingold passed in the wake of Lincoln Bedroom rentals and Enron scandals, an era when more and more politicians – from both parties – were in the pocket of huge corporations and passing laws that deregulated Wall Street and consolidated the media. McCain – Feingold closed the door to the existing system of corruption: soft money. And our law still bans the political parties from accepting – and politicians from soliciting – unlimited contributions from corporate donors.
But Citizens United created an entirely new, nearly perfect nexus for corruption. This time, Congress cannot wait for a scandal to be revealed.

Eventually, President Obama will appoint justices to overturn this decision. Until then, Congress can and must act to mitigate the effects of this corruption.

Work is being done on the state level. When legislators in Montana passed their landmark Corrupt Practices Act in the early 1900’s, it was because corporate giants were bribing that state’s election officials.

Yet this summer, the Supreme Court doubled-down on its Citizens United decision, rejecting a challenge born from Montana’s laws. Now, corporations will have free reign to try to buy both federal and state-level elections.

While it’s true that super PACs, which have to disclose their donors, will play a large role this year by running ads explicitly for or against federal candidates, we should be equally concerned by the danger posed from their companion organizations – 501(c)4 groups. These entities are now capable of accepting unlimited corporate funds and running negative television ads that advocate against the election of specific candidates, often without any disclosure at all. Between now and November’s election, Karl Rove will spend many millions of dollars of ads against democrats through his 501(c)4. So will Americans for Prosperity, the corporate-backed front group that funded the Tea Party. And because of newly found Republican objection to disclosure laws (legislation they supported in the 1990’s), we will likely never know which corporations are participating in this year’s election.

Some large donors understand the danger of lending legitimacy to this new system of corruption. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor, has refused to donate to the entities created by Citizens United. “I don’t want to see democracy go in that direction,” he told his shareholders.

Buffett is right – our constitution requires that America’s democracy must be reclaimed from corrupting corporate interests.

Former Senator Russ Feingold is the founder of Progressives United, an organization created to counter the effects of Citizens United

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