Since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court ruling, spending money has equated to the free expression of speech in modern elections. If campaign expenditure reform is not one of the most hotly-debated issues of the 2012 election- it should be. It is becoming increasingly more evident that the mechanism and sources through which candidates raise election capital have enormous influence on their political speech.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission that statutes protecting the ability of individual contributors to fund political broadcasts legally extended to corporations, because campaign finance laws could not deny free speech rights based on the type of entity claiming such rights.
Debate over who should be allowed to donate, and how much, was renewed in the wake of the controversial ruling, bringing us to today: where do the two major candidates stand on the issue of campaign finance reform?
This debate is an edited version of a debate that is part of the US Presidential Election Project and as such there are some differences from normal debatabase debates. The two sides are not necessarily for and against, the two sides may agree on a few areas – in this case that there is some need for reform, but are instead Obama and Romney’s positions so may not add up to a compelling case. As in other debatabase debates the counterpoints will be highlighting the flaws in the argument. The Points For are Barak Obama's position and Points Against Mitt Romney's.
President Obama famously eschewed large corporate donors in favor of grassroots fundraising and social media in 2008, casting a wide net of supporters. By election day his facebook page had 3.4million supporters, his website My.BarackObama.com had 2million members, the campaign had an email list of 13 million and there were 1 million text message subscribers showing how campaigns should be run by mobilizing people not powerful interests. Following a similar strategy, the 2012 campaign garnered hundreds of thousands supporters in the first several months, shattering 2008 records. President Obama has stated in the public record his support for increased disclosure for corporate and individual donors as well as efforts to limit the high-value contributions from corporations that are permitted under Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission.
In response to the supreme court decision on Citizens United v Federal Election Commission act Obama declared in the 2010 state of the Union “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people”. In a democracy where the government is supposed to be accountable to the people this should be self-evident; accountable to the people should mean that rather than accountable to corporate interests.
Corporations have just as much stake in the country as individuals do, they are affected just as much by decisions taken by the president; what regulations there should be, should there be subsidies, should free trade or protectionism promoted etc., and so have just as much interest in being able to make their voice heard in elections. Corporations are unable to vote so the only way for them to do this is to finance campaigns. It is also wrong to suggest that corporations funding campaigns gives them undue influence. When looking at voting patterns in congress it appears that candidates voting behavior is almost entirely based on their own beliefs and their party’s preferences and campaign contributions have next to no impact. In fact it makes so little difference that Ansolabehere et al. in their conclusion say “the question is not why do corporations, unions and other interest groups give so little, but why do they give at all?”
There is a need to create more parity between individuals and corporations. There is much more campaign funding where there is non-disclosure, there has been little money flowing into ‘super-PACs’ that must disclose donors instead it goes to tax exempts organizations that are not subject to the disclosure requirements. As non-disclosure means higher fundraising figures, then it becomes optimal for every politician to adopt a strategy of opacity in order to fare better than his or her opponents. The culture of corporate electioneering aided by legally-sanctioned anonymity would likely demoralize voters and funnel candidates’ priorities towards courting big business at great cost to the average American citizen during and after the election.
While it may be a stretch to assert that Citizens United granted corporations “personhood,” the impacts of the ruling are far-reaching for campaign finance law. Even small corporations have disproportionate spending power compared to individuals. Oftentimes decisions in corporations are made by boards of executives and not aggregates of working-class citizens, exacerbating the influence of those who already wield greater financial and political capital. If money is indeed speech, then corporations speak much, much louder than individuals from the outset. Some contend that the voices of unions, which are similarly protected under the same ruling, lend a degree of partisan balance—implicitly acknowledging that the divide is indeed tinged with partisanship—but realistically, even the largest union contributions pale in comparison to those of Fortune 500 companies. Distortion in the marketplace of ideas increases reliance on negative campaigning, which hurts voter turnout and morale while usually detracting from substantive dialogue about policy issues. It also raises the barriers of entry for third-party candidates and more moderate candidates during elections and primaries, more deeply entrenching the two-party system.
Corporate entities have the right to be anonymous if they choose. American elections have to reach an extremely large and spread out audience, and this requires large amounts of funding, which is provided by corporations and individuals. There simply shouldn’t be parity with corporations and individuals because they are not the same thing- it is like comparing apples to beef, you can eat both of them but they are nothing alike.
Corporations can represent thousands of people that they employ or are their shareholders. They are speaking on behalf of their organisation, not as individuals. They are supporting candidates that they believe will help their business so they are speaking for those who wish to keep their jobs at the company.
It is however wrong to assert that citizens united is just about corporations – it is about all groups and therefore about individuals. The Supreme Court in this case recognised that limiting political spending limits speech by limiting citizens ability to deliver their view. In practice the best way for individual citizens to deliver their views is to create groups with other like-minded individuals. Quite the contrary to what democrats may believe this is also necessary for third party candidates such as Ross Perot who would get nowhere without large scale contributions because they have, at least initially, a narrow base of support.
Disclosure laws are intended to bring transparency to the electoral process. By scrutinizing the sources of campaign funds, voters can gain insight into how candidates intend to appoint justices and pass laws while in office. Obama’s attempt at transparency, the DISCLOSE Act, has so far failed to gather a majority of votes in Congress in 2010 but it shows how Obama would like to proceed. This kind of transparency is necessary today because during the 2010 midterms the groups that don’t need to disclose contributions outspent the PACs that must disclose donors by 3 to 2 spending $100million on issue ads.
Without strict disclosure rules, the legislative agendas of elected officials become more opaque, and the public has fewer ways to hold them accountable. Voters would be forced to rely on the goodwill of their elected officials to voluntarily disclose the sources of funding, a system which generates negative incentives to bury the information that is perhaps most critical and relevant to the public interest.
Opponents have expressed other problems with the language of the DISCLOSE Act, including seemingly arbitrary exemptions for large and long-standing organizations—criteria which capture most labor unions. This makes the DISCLOSE act like any other campaign finance reform; essentially it is party political benefiting aimed at the Republicans by the Democrats who passed it who have exempted those in their own camp who might be affected. It is designed to benefit the party that passed it rather than really increase transparency.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has supported campaign finance law reform. Most of Romney’s recent comments on reform have been in regard to laws governing spending during primaries as opposed to general elections. Primary campaign funds are earmarked as such and forbidden for use in general election campaigns until after the Republican National Convention, so the Republican nominee is at a disadvantage against the Democratic candidate if the convention nomination outcome is evident before August 27. Over the years, Romney has advocated various stances on spending limits: in 1994, he supported capping congressional spending, but in 2007, he disparaged McCain-Feingold warning “We step into dangerous territory when politicians start eviscerating our fundamental freedoms in the name of amorphous principles, like campaign finance reform. If I am elected President, a top priority will be to push for the repeal of this deeply-flawed measure, and restore the full freedom of political participation and expression to the American people.” Romney expressed support for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United along with concern about the corrupting influence of corporate money in elections.
Romney’s claim that there needs to be reform to campaign finance law are most likely empty words; his complaint over the disadvantage over the use of primary campaign funds demonstrates this because it is only an advantage that one candidate every eight years gets, essentially this then is a complaint at a very marginal advantage the incumbent Obama has over him.
Campaign finance needs much more than just the reform that Romney suggests. It needs a complete overhaul to stop allowing for large corporate spending which in turn results in elected officials being more accountable to corporations rather than their constituents. That is why Obama supports the overturning of the Citizens United case.
A principled commitment to freedom of speech under the First Amendment should not distinguish, through intent or impact, protected speech on the basis of its content or source. The ability of nonprofit and for-profit corporations to directly and freely donate to candidates does not warrant a sufficient governmental interest – decrying negative effects of distortion on elections does not merit federal intervention. Furthermore, the unique harm of corporate speech has yet to be demonstrated.
The Citizens United case allows unlimited spending by non-profit corporations as well as unions so benefits both Republicans and Democrats equally. The Super PAC Priorities USA Action has spent over $20 million supporting President Obama. Current campaign finance policies could be improved, but the system as a whole is fair, and repealing corporate free speech would be unconstitutional.
Campaign spending caps make constitutional arguments about whose speech ought to be protected and under what circumstances.
The fact remains that for-profits corporations can have a much larger say than non profits or individuals. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer spends over $11 million PER YEAR on lobbying irrespective of elections, and this goes up to $13 million in an election year.
While President Obama may have received $20 million for Priorities USA Action pales in comparison to the $82, 491, 407 that Romney has received from the Super PAC Restore Our Future.
Ansolabehere, Stephen, et al., ‘Why is There so Little Money in U.S. Politics?’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 2003, pp.105-130 http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/089533003321164976
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Corrado, Anthony J. et al., ‘Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns’, in Boatright, Robert G. ed., Campaign Finance, pp.107-128
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