In mid-January, the United States had the pleasure of celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee Supreme Court case. The case was filed against the FEC by the political action committee Citizens United over regulations on funding and restrictions on advertisements before elections. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or BCRA, prevented corporations or special interest groups from funding political advertising through their general treasury. The District Court for Washington, D.C. upheld the law, but the case was appealed and overturned in the Supreme Court. Corporations had the same rights as individuals when it came to spending money on campaigns, it was decided. In the decade since the case was decided, the political landscape has morphed into something entirely unrecognizable.
In the 2010 midterm elections, campaign expenditures skyrocketed from $64 million to $294 million. Nearly half of that money came from newly-formed Political Action Committees (PACs) that are able to conceal their donors. This “dark money” had been present since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, a Supreme Court case that eased disclosure requirements for political donations. But, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, these donations now have a sheen of legitimacy. The numbers continue to rise, and over a billion dollars were spent on advertisements for the 2018 midterms.
The years following the decision also gave rise to a new group of donors. Although this group is small in number, they have a disproportionate sway over the electoral process. Out of the $4.5 billion dollars raised by super PACs in the past eight years, $1 billion came from only 11 people, who are from both Republican and Democratic backgrounds. Funnily enough, two of the men on the list were Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, both of whom are now running for president. Bloomberg spent a record $100 million dollars in a month, furthering the financial bar for entry.
The shockwaves the ruling sent through the legal system are even felt in the chaos of the Trump impeachment trial. Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani’s associates and one of the figures central to the Ukraine controversy, apparently cozied up to the Commander in Chief at an event held by the president for donors to Trump’s PAC, America First Action. The donations came through via a limited liability company to conceal the identity of Parnas and his cohort, Igor Fruman. Through this, he was able to begin negotiations with Trump about the Biden investigation and the obstruction of the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. The Citizens United case allowed Parnas to conceal his true intentions and easily stay under the radar.
A few more examples of dark money in politics compromising officials can be seen in the reluctance to combat price-fixing in the medical industry and the utter incompetence in legislating big tech. In 2019, the industry that spent the most on lobbying was the health sector, coming in at about $594 million. A majority of that was spent on combating legislation that involved price control on certain drugs, while another sum of it was spent on combating the Trump administration agenda to decrease drug prices. The industry’s efforts to stall regulations stings in the face of the absurd and unaffordable pricing for prescription drugs.
In terms of tech, companies like Facebook and Google have been investing heavily in lobbying. Their spending has been ramping up in the face of privacy concerns and unfair market practices, obviously trying to influence lawmakers to get off their proverbial backs. It’s incredibly difficult to fully gauge how much Capitol Hill has been compromised by lobbying and dark money, but the mere fact that we have to consider the prospect is the impetus to reform.
Despite the frustrating state of campaign finance, one thing rings true. Americans overwhelmingly want to see a decrease in political spending. In 2018, Pew Research determined that 77 percent of people believe there should be limits in place on expenditures. It’s a bipartisan conviction, with 71 percent of right-leaning people and 85 percent of left-leaning people supporting limits on money in politics. Recently, we’ve seen candidates denounce donations from PACs of questionable origin. Candidates for president have shown it’s indeed possible to sustain a race on small donors. Candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both sworn off PAC donations altogether, each raising millions of dollars. Despite jokes about his wine cave fundraiser, Pete Buttigieg has raised nearly half of his $50,000,000 from small individual contributions of $200 or less. Grassroots campaigning has become more and more popular.
Tides are changing, but the influence Citizens United has had on the way politicians approach fundraising is clear. Dark money is sickeningly pervasive, keeping us guessing about whether or not our elected officials serve the people or special interest groups. Constituents have noticed and are trying to combat that with campaigns that draw from smaller donors. Large scale donors have upped the scale to match, with players like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer quite literally buying themselves a bid for the nomination. It’s only been a decade, but the nature of campaigning has been irrevocably warped.
That doesn’t mean all is lost: There are still things that people can do to help. Phonebank for or donate to smaller-scale campaigns, contact your local representatives to voice your concerns and stay aware of how your favorite politicians make their money. The website opensecrets.org keeps track of all funds spent by politicians on campaigning, making it incredibly easy to hold them responsible for their allegiances. In the face of overwhelming odds, it is of the utmost importance that you stay vigilant and stop our democracy from crumbling under the pressures of the corporate elite.
Sam Fogel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.