The latest wrecking ball flailing around in the rubble of America’s election and campaign finance laws, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, will be argued in the Supreme Court on October 8. Once again we can expect counsel and some members of the Court to be on the lookout for deviant, “forbidden” thinking about money and democracy.
At issue is whether the federal aggregate contribution limits (currently $48,000 to candidates and $74,000 to party committees) violate freedom of speech under the First Amendment. One plaintiff is Shaun McCutcheon, CEO of a company that services the coal and mining industry. Although he was among a handful of people who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and SuperPACs in the last election cycle, he claims that his freedom of speech is violated by the federal aggregate limit of $123,000. The other plaintiff is the Republican National Committee, whose members naturally wish to receive as much money as they can, and claim that the aggregate limits violate their freedom of speech.
In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court paved the way for unprecedented amounts of outside campaign spending by powerful interests. As a result, billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have pledged to spend up to $400 million in an all-out effort to ensure that the voices of the richest few are heard the loudest.
The numbers support the trend. Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at University of California, Irvine, says outside campaign spending through March 8 amounts to more than $88 million for federal elections. This represents a significant contrast to the $37.5 million in 2004 and $14.2 million in 2000. The growth is even starker in mid-term years as the same spending jumped from $1.8 million in 2006 to $15.8 million in 2010.
Perhaps most disconcerting, this regime has led to a situation in which the superrich can spend more and more on elections without any disclosure. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in testimony before a Senate committee, claimed that there were at least 23 families worth over $1 billion who have given more than $250,000 in campaign contributions this cycle. Just 196 Americans have given more than 80 percent of the total money donated to super PACs.
Groups and individuals have proposed efforts to help blunt the or counter powerful interests seeking to sway elections. Professor Lawrence Lessig has advocated for a series of citizen conventions to craft a constitutional amendment. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has called for a constitutional amendment. The group Free Speech for People also proposes a constitutional amendment. Jeff Clements, co-founder and president of the group, stated in written testimony to the Senate, that a constitutional amendment was needed to restore congressional power over campaign finance regulation. Perhaps the closest Congress has come to reform was the DISCLOSE ACT, which would have required that independent groups disclose those donors who give more than $10,000. Though the bill received support from a majority of the Senate, Republicans blocked the measure using a procedural move.
In Citizens United the high court ruled 5-4 that corporations have First Amendment rights equivalent to persons, and therefore can funnel their expenditures into politics. Citizens United overruled long time federal regulations of corporate campaign financing.
Montana’s high court, with two members dissenting in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. State of Montana, said the Citizens United opinion does not nullify the state’s Corrupt Practices Act, enacted in 1912. The Montana campaign finance regulation was invalidated by a lower court state judge, citing Citizens United.
Writing for the Montana Supreme Court majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath said the state had never lost a “compelling interest to enact” the law. “At the time,” McGrath wrote, “the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests.”
The chief justice continued that today concerns of “corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly, Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.”
Jeff Clements, general counsel of Free Speech for People, a public interest group devoted to overturning Citizens United, lauded the Montana high court’s opinion, writing, “Corporations are not people. The Framers understood that. We are proud to stand today with the State of Montana to vindicate the Framers’ intent and to defend our democracy.”
Right-wing policymakers triumphed impressively last year taking control of many statehouses from coast to coast. Many of those lawmakers were ushered into office backed by Tea Party fervor, and lots of money from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers, who head Koch Industries and espouse efforts to radically constrain government.
A year after their sweeping victories, however, some of their most outrageous policies were shelved by large numbers of voters last night.
The frontal assault on public sector workers in Ohio, as noted by the Plain Dealer, was squashed by voters, 61 percent to 39 percent. In a guest post for ACSblog, Ohio State University law school professor Dan Tokaji noted that SB 5, which gutted collective bargaining rights of public workers, was a “center of Governor Kasich’s first year in office.” Tokaji said the defeat of the anti-workers’ rights law was not only a major setback to the Republican governor, but also has ramifications outside the Buckeye state. If the law would have survived, Tokaji said it would have dealt a “crippling blow to organized labor, drastically curtailing its political influence.”
Mississippi provided a mixed bag, defeating a radical anti-abortion measure, but supporting a stringent new voter registration law. As noted by The New York Times, perhaps one of the night’s “biggest surprises” was the state’s rejection of a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant legal rights to embryos, effectively outlawing abortion and other forms of birth control in the state. That policy was advocated by a Religious Right group called Personhood USA, which says it is pushing similar measures all over the country, and doing so, in part, “to glorify Jesus Christ in a way that creates a culture of life so that all innocent human lives are protected by love and by law.”
Following defeat of the measure, Keith Ashley in a blog post for Personhood USA said the group understands the difficulty of “changing a culture,” and that it vows “to continue on this path towards affirming the basic dignity and human rights of all people ….”
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center of Reproductive Rights, hailed the defeat of the Personhood Amendment, saying in a press statement, “Outlawing medical services commonly used and relied upon by Americans in their personal lives runs completely counter to the U.S. Constitution, not to mention some of our most deeply held American political traditions and values.”
In what is being billed as the first direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC opinion, a coalition of groups has come together to help restore Montana’s century-old law against corporate politicking.
Last fall, a Montana judge invalidated the state’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, which bans corporations from spending on elections, citing the high court’s Citizens United ruling. Citizens United struck down decades of precedent upholding campaign finance regulations, finding that corporations have free speech rights to funnel corporate dollars into campaign coffers. As noted in this blog post, the Koch brothers, head of Koch industries and prime funders of Tea Party activities, are taking advantage of Citizens United to push their employees to vote for far-right candidates.
The Montana Attorney General has appealed the decision to the state’s highest court, and today Free Speech for People, a national campaign to overturn Citizens United, along with national and Montana business networks, lodged an amicus brief urging the restoration of the Montana campaign finance law.
The friend-of-the-court brief in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. State of Montana blasts the Citizens Union opinion as “an extreme extension of an erroneous corporate rights doctrine that has eroded the First Amendment and the Constitution for the past 30 years.” The brief adds that Citizens United “is contrary not only to our republic principles of government, but also to American principles of free and fair commerce among free people and the States.”
Jeff Clements, co-founder and general counsel of Free Speech for People and author of the amicus brief, said in a press statement, “Corporations are not people. The Framers understood that. The First Amendment and the Constitution is for the people. We are proud to stand today with the State of Montana to vindicate the Framers’ intent and to defend our democracy.”
Clements is also author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Beyond Citizens United v. FEC: Re-Examining Corporate Rights.” Clements also talked with ACSblog about Free Speech for People’s effort to advance a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Watch his interview here.