Two years after a controversial Supreme Court ruling lifted many restrictions on political spending, America’s campaign finance laws have officially become a joke.
Stephen Colbert, a comedian who says he wants to be the “president of the United States of South Carolina,” has used the “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC” to highlight the weak separation between candidates and the outside spending groups that support them.
But the new power corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals have to sway elections in the wake of the Citizens United decision is not a laughing matter to many Americans. People are organizing protests Friday and over the weekend to draw attention to the lack of disclosure and accountability in the U.S. campaign finance system.
Citizens United and a lower-court ruling in 2010 allowed corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals to give money to “super PACs,” political organizations that can receive unlimited corporate, union, and individual contributions. The groups can use these funds to make unlimited expenditures on advertisements in support of or opposition to candidates.
Move to Amend, one of the groups protesting Citizens United Friday, is pushing to change the Constitution. The organization’s amendment would limit rights protected by the Constitution to “natural persons only” – not corporations – and force the courts to “not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech.”
Common Cause, another advocacy group seeking to overturn Citizens United, has also launched a pro-amendment project, Amend2012. The effort is being led by Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “Our goal is to have as many states as possible pass ballot resolutions calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment,” the group’s website explains.
Decisions by the high court invalidate conflicting state laws. But the Montana Supreme Court in December stuck to its guns.
The state supreme court upheld a law barring campaign corporate spending on the grounds that the Citizens United ruling only applies to national elections. Attorney James Bopp Jr., an opponent of campaign finance restrictions who successfully argued Citizens United, is expected to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the arguments made in the 5-4 decision was that shareholders would monitor corporations’ political contributions. But those donations are not so easy to find thanks to weak disclosure rules.
Now the Corporate Reform Coalition, a group mainly composed of institutional investors, is petitioning the Securities and Exchange Commission to increase corporations’ disclosure of political spending.
Supporters of increased corporate disclosure point to studies that show companies with higher levels of political activity – lobbying and political action committee expenditures – tend to be less valuable and correlate with weaker shareholder governance and more corporate jet use by CEOs.