Yasmeen Dohan: The threat to our democracy isn’t Citizens United

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 5:11pm

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to impose any type of restriction on corporate spending for political communications, provided it is not directly in cooperation with a candidate or campaign. Nine years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, fervent opposition to the landmark decision has yet to subside. In fact, earlier this summer, Democrats in the U.S. Senate presented a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. 

Why does the decision of Citizens United remain so controversial today? The most prevalent concern among the American electorate regarding the decision is the fear of corporations holding unfettered power and influence on elections. This would essentially dwarf the voice of the ordinary individual through super PACs or political action committees that have the ability to raise and spend unlimited funds to advocate for or against candidates publicly. However, this claim is naive and unsubstantiated. The true concern Citizens United presents is one regarding other means of corporate influence, particularly lobbying. 

Despite enormous backlash, the Supreme Court was certainly warranted in its decision. The First Amendment underscores the freedom of assembly, implying that the right to freedom of speech is guaranteed, even when citizens join together. Any attempt to curtail the independent political spending of any organization would violate this fundamental right. Many would agree that nonprofits like Planned Parenthood should be free to independently spend funds on advertisements. So what should limit other corporations such as Microsoft or Verizon?

Anyone skeptical of this argument should also take into account that studies have shown that PAC spending has little effect on vote shares and voter turnout. Additionally, research has signaled the possibility that money isn’t likely to decide election success, especially taking into account other factors such as incumbency and partisanship. In fact, three of the top five most funded super PACs of 2016 were in support of the candidate who did not win the presidential election.

After some deep digging, it is evident the relationship between PAC spending and elections is much more complex than initially thought. But before one takes a sigh of relief, a greater problem must be acknowledged: lobbying. 

Lobbying has long been seen as a disease afflicting American democracy. Public perception of lobbying is the belief that lobbyists intend to dominate policymaking through their persuasion of legislators. But in reality, lobbyists are much more intricately unified with legislators than many believe. 

It is no secret that legislators are extremely limited in their ability to pay their congressional staffers. As a result, congressional offices experience high turnover rates, with employees quick to accept opportunities to make more money elsewhere. As a result, staffers often have little experience or knowledge, leaving them heavily dependent on lobbyists to assemble the research necessary to develop their policies. 

As a result, lobbying can more accurately be described as a legislative subsidy, a term coined by University of Michigan professors Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff. A legislative subsidy can be defined as “a matching grant of costly policy information, political intelligence, and labor to the enterprises of strategically selected legislators.”

With 95 of the 100 highest-spending lobbying organizations representing business, a large number of business representatives act as legislative subsidies. These business representatives often provide expertise on policy issues that affect them, playing a large role in the overall decision-making process of legislators. Public officials and certain industries, like that of education, remain outshined. Therefore, it is no surprise that companies can exert excessive influence over policymaking with business interests so highly represented. In fact, one study shows that business interests are disproportionately represented compared to the interests of the general public. 

With Citizens United still sparking discussion about the role of money in politics today, the American public should be aware that restricting independent corporate expenditures is not a solution to political corruption; business interests in lobbying are far more problematic. This issue has yet to be met with a realistic and tangible resolution and may well be just another inherent flaw of our nation’s capitalistic society. But for the sake of true democracy, we should not give up on finding ways to lessen the impact of wealthy special interests. 

Yasmeen Dohan can be reached at yasmeend@umich.edu.