Since the decision came down two and a half years ago, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has been seen in some political circles (OK, mostly the left) as the most destructive act ever committed by the court, paving the way for unbridled spending in the form of so-called SuperPACs.
But just what exactly did Citizens United change?
Technically, the court said the government may not prevent corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce candidates. It also barred corporations or unions from giving money directly to campaigns.
This stuck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation that restricted independent corporate expenditures. According to detractors, campaign spending by outside groups has exploded since the decision came down.
But government spending watchdog Open Secrets is out with a new chart today that suggests Citizens United merely had the effect of shifting around existing money, channeling it into new ventures that categorize their spending differently.
Independent expenditures are defined as messages that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate. Electioneering communications are defined as issue ads that refer to a candidate without asking voters to elect or defeat him/her. Member communications include messages from groups to only their members and can advocate for or against candidates.
SuperPAC critics tend to use charts like this, which leave out “soft money” and other outside spending:
Photo: Open Secrets
Here’s OpenSecret’s Bob Biersack’s explanation:
“Why is there mostly blank space on the chart above for earlier cycles, such as those of the 1990s? Mostly because, while there was similar spending, it didn’t fit into the specific definitions we’re now using, such as ‘electioneering communications.’
“[The first chart has] two additions: the total raised in party ‘soft money’ by the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee during comparable portions of election cycles in the ’90s, as well as spending by federally focused 527 organisations — named for a provision of the tax code — through the same period in later cycles.”
McCain-Feingold was supposed to have banned soft money from campaigns. It did for precisely one election cycle, after which big spenders realised they could channel money into 527s. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his majority Citizens United decision,
“In the 2004 election cycle, a mere 24 individuals contributed an astounding total of $142
million to [26 U. S. C. §527 organisations]”
The first graph shows that all Citizens United did was strike down campaign finance laws that had already been circumvented.
In other words, the money never left.
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