The Influence of Corporations and Unions in our Democratic Process
By Elizabeth Hong
On Wednesday, January 27, 2010, President Barack Obama remarked in his State of the Union Address that the Supreme Court had “reversed a century of law that [he believes] will open the floodgates for special interests…to spend without limit in our elections,” as Justice Samuel Alito shook his head in disagreement. In the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. FEC just a week prior to that remark, corporations and unions were given the ability to spend an unlimited amount of money on ads or tools for political candidates, maintaining that these entities are still prohibited from directly contributing money to those who run for federal office. In light of this landmark decision, super PACs, or Political Action Committees, began forming and accepting unlimited donations from billionaires, corporations, and unions. In 2012, super PACs spent over $600 million in elections, mostly on ads. While proponents argue that the money spent through super PACs constitutes as free speech, protected by the First Amendment, and corruption is unlikely since super PACs are not directly allowed to coordinate with candidates, the amount of money being funneled into political campaigns is unprecedented. The average cost of winning a House seat was $1.6 million and winning candidates in the Senate spent approximately $10.3 million in 2012. The aftermath from the Citizens United decision is even more pronounced when you compare the total outside spending by election cycle, excluding party committees. The estimated $46 million spent in 2008 skyrocketed to $126 million in 2012. Despite that supporters of the Citizens United decision may contend that this spending is simply political speech designed to inform voters more through increase ads and not directly contributing to candidates, the growing presence of money in politics cannot be disregarded. The surge in the influence of outside money into our democratic process may seem alarming, but in a few years, it might not seem so groundbreaking anymore and the current laws regulating campaign financing set in wake of the Watergate scandal will perhaps be questioned even further. In fact, just last April, the Supreme Court struck down limits that capped the total amount any individual could donate to candidates in a two-year election cycle in another 5-4 decision, which would hypothetically allow any donor to give as much as $3.5 million split amongst candidates, PACs, and political parties. The floodgates are opening and our voices in the policies and actions our country undertakes may very well be deluged and drowned out by special interest groups, corporations, and unions.