This Washington

The Sons of Citizens United

By Josh Feit March 18, 2011

Politico has an article today which could be called "The Sons of Citizens United." It's actually called "To Right, Citizens Just a Start."

Politico writer Ken Vogel (who used to work for the Tacoma News Tribune) has a revue of cases currently in play, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and around the country that conservatives (and one or two liberals) are pushing to build on last year's Citizens United decision by eliminating other restrictions on campaign finance.

For example, opponents of campaign finance regulations are seeking to overturn rules that: limit how much the political parties can spend on candidates (currently $5,000); bar PACs from giving to candidates when the PAC has received unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals for ads (PACs can currently give candidates $5000); bar direct corporate giving to state candidates (something already allowed in Washington State); and bar reimbursements for bundling—that is, preventing your boss from asking everyone at the workplace to contribute to a candidate with the understanding that he'll pay you back for it.

There's also a case, being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court next week, the challenges Arizon's public financing system; public money needs to be exorcised from the system while corporate money needs to course through it, I guess?

A little primer: Citizens United lifted the final barrier to unlimited corporate and union spending on non-profit electioneering, a fancy word for interest group campaigning that falls short of telling people how to vote, but  namechecks a candidate as opposed to simply hyping an issue.

I must say, Citizens is often exaggerated by liberals. For example, corporations still cannot donate directly to candidates. What they can do—that they couldn't do before—is give directly to political non-profits for electioneering. (Citizens also comes with a scary footnote, saying corporations have the same rights as individuals—not a new standard, by the way, but one that had been reversed in a famous FDR-era ruling.)

Here's the history behind Citizens: After McCain-Feingold in 2002, corporations and unions were barred from directly funding non-profit "electioneering communications"—ads that flirt with telling voters how to vote on a candidate by naming them in the context of an issue advertisement. (Corporations could always fund theses ads through their corporate PACs, by the way, but it was still regulated: PACs rely on contributions from individual employees at the corporation as opposed to direct checks from the corporate bank account; there are caps on contributions to PACs; there are caps on PAC spending; and there is full disclosure from the PAC side. The non-profits don't have to disclose donors themselves.)

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the Wisconsin Right to Life case that corporations could bypass PACs and spend directly from their bank accounts—unlimited money to fund non-profit "electioneering." The ruling did come with some definitions of "electioneering" that allowed people to challenge the spending if the ads seemed to cross a line into direct advocacy for a candidate—but those (albeit lax) guidelines were erased by Citizens United.

The Supreme Court's 2009 Citizens United ruling said "electioneering" could directly advocate for or against candidates and, as if to make that point clearer, simultaneously allowed the spending to occur during the election season. (Prior to Citizens, spending on electioneering was prohibited 60 days out from a general election.)

The beauty for these  extra-strength electioneering ads for corporate donors? Nonprofit 501 (c) 4s aren't required to disclose donors.

Bottom line: Now, corporations can pour cash into hard hitting "electioneering" ads without any disclosure.

Citizens United certainly had an effect on the recent U.S. senate race between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and her Republican challenger Dino Rossi, allowing corporations to fund innocuous sounding groups like the American Action Network. Rossi was the clear beneficiary; corporate-backed non-profits spent over $4 million against Murray.

While Washington State's laws are already far more lax than federal rules when it comes to direct corporate giving (not only can corporations give directly to non-profits, they can give unlimited cash to full on political independent expenditure groups, and they can give—limited—amounts directly to candidates), our state's full disclosure rules (lacking at the federal level now) are supposed keep things clean here.

Of course, Washington State has had some trouble with full disclosure rules lately.
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