13 Years after Citizens United v. FEC, President Biden Must Lead on Disclosure
By Elias Hakim, campaign associate for Public Citizen
This January marks 13 years since the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC removed restrictions on campaign spending to third-party actors so long as it is independent from candidates and parties, in the name of free speech. This reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited money to influence elections through nonprofits, trade associations, and other vehicles.Since this ruling, corporate spending in our elections has skyrocketed. $8.9 billion was spent on federal races in the 2022 midterms, with the top 1% of donors giving 38% of the total amount.
The Citizens United decision also created loopholes allowing undisclosed political spending, creating a crisis of transparency in election funding. Justice Kennedy voiced in his opinion that the decision was predicated on the assumption that the flood of newly enabled corporate money would be promptly disclosed to shareholders and the public. Unfortunately, that disclosure regime did not exist in 2010 and hasn’t been created since. Secretive groups have taken advantage of these loopholes, spending over $1 billion to influence federal elections since 2010. This influx of big, undisclosed money in politics has been disastrous for our democracy, inflating the power of billionaires and corporations at the expense of everyday people.
Unlimited, undisclosed spending in our elections allows the ultra-rich to pour money into campaigns and attempt to buy influence over our elected officials. Billionaires and corporations use this influence to block progress on issues that matter the most to us, including liveable wages, solving climate change, healthcare as a human right, and gun violence prevention. Secret money groups have also bankrolled some of the politicians behind the attacks on reproductive rights. Due to the disclosure loopholes created as a result of the Citizens United decision, these wealthy donors can avoid facing any accountability for their actions. As long as big money goes unchecked in our political system, the ultra-wealthy will continue to exert their influence to ensure that their agenda outweighs the wants and needs of the people.
Beyond just influencing the political agenda on the issues that impact our day-to-day lives, secret money groups pose an existential threat to our democracy itself. Secretive right-wing groups raised millions of dollars to the January 6th rally preceding the insurrection attempt to overturn the 2020 Election, and have continued propagating the ‘big lie’ by funding midterm candidates who denied the election results. A new report from the watchdog group Documented has shown that the Heritage Action for America, a right-wing dark money group that is not required to disclose their donors, spent over $5 million in 2021 to block federal legislation to protect the freedom to vote, while simultaneously advancing aggressive voter suppression measures in battleground states. The problem of money in politics is real, and it’s impacting what we’re able to get done in Congress.
Luckily, there are actions that can be taken by Congress and President Biden to correct the course. Reps. Schiff, Phillips, Jayapal, and McGovern just introduced the Democracy for All Amendment which would overturn the Citizens United decision. A constitutional amendment is the necessary long-term fix to the Citizens United problem, but unsurprisingly, big money interests are influencing legislators to block such legislation. The good news is that there are short-term fixes to our disclosure problem while we wait for our window to pass the amendment.
One example comes from the White House. President Biden can act unilaterally via executive action to address some of the secret spending in our elections. The president can implement an executive order requiring corporations that receive over one million dollars in federal contracts to disclose their political spending, which will increase transparency and help ensure that contracts go to the best candidate rather than those with the deepest pockets. While limited in scope, this executive order would be the most substantial federal restriction on secret money since Citizens United, and help set us on the right path to ending the blight of big money in our democracy.
People want action on this issue. Americans across the political spectrum believe our government should work for we the people, not the wealthiest 1%/corporate interests. more critical than ever. An August 2022 CBS News poll found that seven in 10 (72 percent) Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are somewhat or very threatened, and “the influence of money in politics” rose to the top of the list of reasons why. We urge the White House to act, 13 years is too long to wait.