Long-established limits on corporate political donations were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January in its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. As a result, numerous pundits and politicians, led by President Obama, have warned of dire consequences. Efforts in Congress to pass new disclosure requirements failed in July, then were revived this fall. University of Illinois political scientist Tom Rudolph has studied the public attitudes and politics surrounding campaign finance and potential reforms, and has co-written a book on the subject. He discussed the issue with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Why hasn't there been more reaction to the Citizens United decision? Given all the anger expressed about corporate bailouts, it's reasonable to think this would have gotten a more vocal public reaction.
Public reaction has been more subdued for likely two main reasons. First, campaign finance is not a particularly salient issue for most citizens. Although the public is often critical of the current campaign finance system and is generally supportive of reform, it routinely ranks campaign finance near the bottom when asked to prioritize among a list of issues. If campaign finance is not a salient issue in the public mind when times are good, it is even less likely to be viewed as such in the midst of an economic recession.
Second, the public has yet to witness the real-world consequences of the Citizens United decision. Since the decision was not handed down until January 2010, the public has yet to experience a full election cycle with the new rules of the game in place. If a large influx of corporate money into the political process produces the negative consequences that some have alleged, public opinion may adjust accordingly.
What were the laws or court rulings that had restricted direct corporate and union donations in the past?
The first federal restrictions on direct corporate contributions to political candidates were put in place more than a century ago by the Tillman Act (1907). That act prohibited corporations from using general treasury funds to make direct contributions to candidates for federal office. The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) not only barred corporations and labor unions from making direct contributions to federal candidates, but also prohibited them from using general treasury funds to make "independent expenditures" in support of a particular candidate.
In the case of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), the Supreme Court extended this prohibition by ruling that states could also restrict corporations from using general treasury funds for independent expenditures in state elections. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002), also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, tightened regulations even further by prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds to engage in issue advocacy within 60 days of a general election, a restriction that was upheld by the court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003).
Although corporations have historically not been allowed to use general treasury funds to make independent expenditures, they have been allowed to create separate accounts from which their political action committees (PACs) may donate money for political purposes.
What were the key changes resulting from the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United?
The court removed two major restrictions by overturning the Austin decision as well as the portion of the McConnell decision that dealt with the 60-day ban in McCain-Feingold. The court ruled that corporations could use general treasury funds to make independent (or uncoordinated) expenditures and that they were permitted to do so at any time during the election.
Behind the court's ruling was a change in its application of the First Amendment's free speech protections. Since Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court has held that limits on independent expenditures by individuals violate the amendment's free speech clause. In Citizens United, the court extended this same protection to corporations by ruling that "government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker's corporate identity." Although corporations - and labor unions - are still prohibited from using general treasury funds to make direct contributions to candidates, they are now permitted to use such funds for independent expenditures and issue advocacy.
Some suggest public financing is the key to reducing the influence of money in politics, and we have a system of public financing for presidential campaigns, though voluntary. Does that system have any merit?
The voluntary nature of the current public financing system makes it very difficult for the system to have its desired effects. Early in the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Barack Obama indicated that he would participate in the public option. When it became clear that he would be able to raise far more than what the public option would allow him to spend, he backed away from his initial commitment, a decision for which his opponents criticized him sharply. As long as the public financing system remains voluntary, candidates are unlikely to take part if they are confident that they can raise more money on their own through private donations.
One common refrain is that no matter how you try to legislate restrictions on money in politics, it will always find its way through the cracks. Do you think that's true? And if so, are there any means for controlling money's influence?
Monied interests have demonstrated a remarkable ability to express themselves in the political process despite numerous legislative efforts to restrict such influence. Despite recent attempts to limit contributions and the use of soft money, corporations, unions, and other independent groups have consistently found a way to get their message out.
Given the difficulties in controlling the influence of monied interests, it is important to have comprehensive disclosure requirements in place. If the flow of money in the political process cannot be slowed, it is all the more important that the public be able to identify and hold accountable the sources of that money.