With conservative justices dominant, the court expanded the concept that money is equivalent to speech, protected by the First Amendment. Corporations, it said, enjoy the same political rights as individuals. The concept of corporate anthropomorphism was crisply summed up by Mitt Romney during his most recent run for president, when he told a heckler in 2011 that “corporations are people, my friend.” (An arch rejoinder was offered during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, in a sign held by a demonstrator in Lower Manhattan: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”)
Dissenters from the court’s liberal wing warned that cascades of cash would create corrupting potential, and would give the wealthiest outsize access to, and influence on, those in government. The echoes of Watergate days were unmistakable. “Where enough money calls the tune,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the McCutcheon case, “the general public will not be heard.” Some conservatives expressed their own concerns, among them Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has long preached the need to rein in political spending. “If money is free speech,” Mr. McCain told Retro Report, “then the wealthiest people in America are those that get to speak the most freely.”
That they are. In 2012, campaign filings show, a total of $6.3 billion was spent on the races for president and for Congress. Both major parties swam in cash, but Republicans commanded a distinct advantage. When it came to giving, the richest were the sturdiest. A study by the Sunlight Foundation, an advocate for government transparency, found that 31,385 people — that is 1 percent of 1 percent of the United States population — accounted for 28 percent of all disclosed contributions in the 2012 elections. They included some of the best-known, and most widely attacked, among the politically active elite, billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, Michael R. Bloomberg, and David and Charles Koch.
The chase for dollars is practically a full-time job for some officeholders. President Obama is no stranger to that reality. In 2010, he deplored the Citizens United ruling and the “new stampede of special interest money” that he predicted would result. But he was not about to disarm unilaterally. He has been so busy corralling cash for fellow Democrats this year, The Washington Post reported last month, that he averaged a fund-raising event every five days.
As if the billions already being collected and spent were not enough, there has been a rapid expansion of so-called dark money. That sinister-sounding term describes secret contributions to social welfare organizations covered by Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code; they are tax exempt. Many of those groups are thoroughly immersed in political campaigns. But as long as they can demonstrate that their primary activity is social policy and not politics, they are under no obligation to identify their donors. According to OpenSecrets.org, which follows the money for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, political spending by these social welfare outfits soared from 2006 to 2012. From slightly over $5 million a year, it climbed to more than $300 million.
This year, an analysis by The New York Times shows, more than half of broadcast advertising in the midterm elections has been paid for by groups that reveal little or nothing about their donors. Overwhelmingly, the main beneficiaries have been conservative organizations.
Who, specifically, gave what to whom? Who knows? But sometimes a knothole develops, enabling people to glimpse what lies behind the fence. One such knothole — a computer error, really — provided access several weeks ago to the files of the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, a tax-exempt and secretive 501(c)(4) arm of the Republican Governors Association. Documents showed that some of the country’s biggest corporations had poured millions into the campaigns of Republican governors, companies like Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Pfizer, Walmart and the lobbying arm of Koch Industries, to name a few.
Some in Congress, Democrats in the main, have called for a constitutional amendment to undo the Citizens United ruling, a proposal that would seem to be a nonstarter in the current political climate. Others are left yearning for another Watergate — a juicy scandal to shake things up and perhaps, as in the past, become a catalyst for change. Martin T. Meehan, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a former Democratic congressman from that state, spoke to Politico in August about the ways of Washington. “It always takes a scandal in order to get Congress to reform itself,” he said.
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.