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Pushing Back on Citizens United

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CREDIT: Flickr/Rainforest Action Network

An overwhelming proportion of super PAC funds—expenditures that totaled some $946 billion in 2012—can be traced to a small number of powerful interests and are used to attack specific candidates, according to new research by a consumer rights advocacy group.

"Spending by outside groups is generally more likely to be negative than spending directly on behalf of a candidate because candidates are not explicitly connected to outside groups," reads the report [PDF], which draws on work by researchers at Wesleyan University.

During the 2012 election cycle, 86 percent of unregulated expenditures—$600 million—were made by just 15 groups to fund negative messages opposing a specific candidate. Researchers also found that presidential candidates are less likely to fund negative ads than to let PACs do their dirty work for them.

That spending was made possible by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a decision in which the Supreme Court ruled to allow corporations and unions to fund independent political expenditures, a move that critics said equated money to speech.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote at the time that, “the fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupted." 

Independent expenditures by outside groups was six times greater in 2012 than 2008, and 13 times higher than in 2004.

Predictably, things can get ugly.

American Shining, a political PAC funded by Californian Congressional candidate Jay Chen’s brother, funded ads that portrayed incumbent Ed Royce as a monster grabbing a screaming woman—but Chen denies any knowledge of the PAC’s activities. Other candidates were promoted by super PACs founded by their own staffers.

Public opinion takes a jaundiced view toward corporate spending. Nine out of 10 Americans, across the political spectrum, agree there's too much money in politics, and 80 percent said they think corporate money “drowns out” the voices of the electorate to influence legislation.

One new coalition, called Money Out/Voters In, launched recently to oppose unregulated corporate political spending. The project advocates for limited Congressional campaign spending—limited to public funds and small quantity of contributions—and for legislation that requires company shareholders to approve spending on political advertisements.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Phy Tran is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @phytran.

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