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Following the Money a Year After Citizens United

• January 19, 2011 • 3:46 PM

Observers thought heaps of anonymous cash would flood U.S. campaign coffers after the controversial Supreme Court decision. They were right.

Last January, critics of the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision — which knocked down long-running restrictions on corporate campaign money in elections — envisioned an ominous scene. Anonymous corporate millions would flood into closely contested elections, elbowing out the influence of average voters, warned many (including the president).

Now, at the decision’s one-year anniversary, hard data is beginning to bear out the grave forecasts, contradicting even some of the Supreme Court’s own predictions. In the wake of Citizens United, outside groups in last year’s election spent more than four times what they’d funneled into the previous midterm cycle, in 2006, according to a new Public Citizen report. And voters will never know where much of it came from.

The scale of so much midterm money ($294.2 million in all) more closely resembles what was spent ($301.7 million) during the 2008 presidential election — suggesting voters have seen only a glimpse of what’s to come in 2012.
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“I still feel like we’re going to see a lot more in 2012, not just because it will be a presidential cycle, but because of the chance for people to sort of get their systems in order,” said Taylor Lincoln, the research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and one of the report’s authors.

Still, he was struck by the speed with which these groups — organizations not tied to a candidate or a political party itself — were able to act on the new rules. The report relied on spending data turned over to the Federal Election Commission. Groups that didn’t disclose to the FEC any information about the sources of their money spent a combined $135.6 million (or 46 percent of the total).

Nearly half of the total, $138.5 million, came from just 10 groups. And seven of those organizations — including the ambiguously named American Action Network, American Future Fund and Americans for Job Security — provided no donor information.

That lack of transparency is at odds with one prominent prediction last January of what would happen.

“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy reasoned in the majority opinion. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

“Unless you make an incredibly legalistic reading of what he said, he was way off the mark,” Lincoln said. “He conjured this image that IBM, Apple, McDonalds might spend money, and then the viewer [of an ad] would be like, ‘Oh, alright, I like Apple, so I like him. I don’t like McDonalds, so I’m not going to vote for him.’ Of course, none of this corporate spending is done by IBM or McDonalds or whoever. It’s passed into a front group.”

Like, say, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (which did not disclose the source of any of the $16,660,986 it spent to influence the 2010 election).

“You never see an ad from General Electric that says ‘Vote for John Doe,’” Lincoln said. “That just doesn’t happen. The whole Supreme Court decision seemed really naïve. They also talked about shareholders weighing and evaluating the contributions of a company, deciding is this a good thing? Well, they’re never even going to know.”

Lincoln’s biggest concern is not simply that this system corrupts the election process, but that it may wind up corrupting the legislative one, too. A candidate may not know how much of his winning war chest originated with General Electric, but most people in Washington know what kind of legislative outcomes Crossroads GPS is angling for this session, even if the general public does not. (They’re listed on the group’s website, right under the tab “key issues.”)

“The legislative process is the ultimate victim of it because you have candidates coming into office with conflicts,” Lincoln said. “That’s the ultimate reason for campaign finance reform and the ultimate threat that is posed by special interest influence over our elections.”

Seventy-five seats in Congress switched parties in the November election. In 60 of those races, the winning candidate reaped more money from outside spending groups — money that, in some cases, might not have been available were it not for Citizens United. That data comes as close as critics can get in drawing a direct line from the court decision to an election outcome (although any such argument must admit that Democrats were expecting a drubbing in November under any circumstance).

“Scientifically, we really don’t quite know,” Lincoln conceded. “We don’t know what would have happened otherwise [without Citizens United]. But we suspect just based on all that spending, and the fact that a number of these races were fairly close, that it was decisive in a number of them.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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