Our leaders should demand transparency and accountability for political spending, create public financing options, and strengthen and expand existing laws.
Several court rulings in the last decade have struck down congressional efforts to regulate campaign spending. Any attempt to address campaign finance raises legitimate free speech concerns, but it is necessary to balance those concerns with the access and influence that money can buy, and the detrimental effects campaign spending can have on ordinary people’s faith in our democratic system.
Our leaders should demand transparency and accountability for political spending, create public financing options, and strengthen and expand existing laws. If needed, a constitutional amendment could clarify that Congress and state legislatures have the power to establish fair, content-neutral controls on election-related spending in the interest of preserving the critical democratic value of equal participation in elections.
What does the Supreme Court say about money in politics?
In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, striking down parts of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). The BCRA, known as “McCain-Feingold” after its lead sponsors, had tightened previous laws to define and regulate “issue advocacy”—public communications about a candidate that are not officially part of the candidate’s campaign.
In a related case, the 2010 appeals court decision in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Elections Commission said that a PAC that only made these kinds of independent expenditures and made no contributions directly to campaigns or party committees could not be limited as to the size of donations they received or the amount they spent. That’s how “SuperPACs” were born.
Money speaks loudly in our political system. Its influence has weakened our democracy, leading ordinary people to doubt their power and giving wealthy individuals and corporations outsized access to decision makers.
The BCRA stated that unions and corporations could not spend money directly on ads just before an election (engage in “electioneering communications”). If these groups wanted to broadcast ads about a candidate, they had to sponsor a political action committee (PAC) to buy the ads, and the PAC could accept only limited amounts from each donor. The limitations meant that, in order to amass a large sum of money, PACs had to promote a political agenda that was widely acceptable to a number of donors.
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court struck down only a small part of the BCRA. Most of the law is still in force. But this one change made it easier for corporations and unions to enter the political fray using their own treasuries and to select campaigns and campaign messages more narrowly tailored to the interests of their boards of directors, rather than to a larger field of donors. The change in SpeechNow extended the same favor to individuals who wish to pool their contributions for greater impact. In the subsequent election cycles, we saw some of the ramifications of these rulings—and the need for change.
It will not be simple to rein in the hidden influence of corporations and wealthy individuals on elections. The courts have consistently ruled that political speech—including that by a corporation—is among the most protected types of speech under the First Amendment. Protection of the first amendment is necessary to safeguard people from government tyranny. Declaring that “corporations are not people”—simply reversing Citizens United—could have the unintended consequence of limiting speech not only by for-profit companies but also by media outlets, service organizations, hospitals and advocacy groups—many of which are also corporations. And it would do nothing to curb the influence of individuals.
Money speaks loudly in our political system. Its influence has weakened our democracy, leading ordinary people to doubt their power and giving wealthy individuals and corporations outsized access to decision makers. Campaign finance reform, up to and including a constitutional amendment, is a necessary part of reclaiming and reinvigorating our democracy.