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With Citizens United Decision and Rise of Super PACs in 2012 Election, Now is the Time for Campaign Finance Reform

It is time for serious and lasting campaign finance reform in light of the landmark January 2010 Citizens United decision and the rise of Super PACs.

What was Citizens United about and what effect did the decision have on influencing and financing campaigns?

The case was brought by Citizens United, a conservative 501(c)(4) not-for-profit corporation engaged in issue advocacy and education, stemming from a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. The organization charged that 2004 pre-election ads for left-wing film producer Michael Moore’s movie, “Fahenheit 9/11” (a political film that attacked George W. Bush’s response to 9/11), constituted political advertising and thus under then current law, may not be aired 60 days before an election or 30 days before a party convention. 

On Aug. 5, 2004, the FEC dismissed the complaint.

Based on its earlier experience, Citizens United elected to run TV commercials promoting its own film, “Hillary: The Movie,” during the 2008 campaign cycle. The film sought to “educate” the American people with respect to the record of then Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was running against then Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination. 

This time around Citizens United was cited by the FEC for violating provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, which restricted “electioneering communications” 30 days before a primary election. The result of the FEC action prevented Citizens United from running its ads. 

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. In a 5-4 decision, the court found in favor of Citizens United. It ruled that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts during election cycles cannot be limited under the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court struck down the provision of McCain-Feingold that prohibited all corporations — both for-profit and not-for-profit — and unions, from broadcasting “electioneering communications” within 30 days of a primary, or 60 days prior to a general election. 

The Citizens United case did not affect the continuing federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties. But the decision effectively allowed U.S. corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on “issue advocacy and education” at any time during — or between — election cycles — hence the influence of PACs in the GOP presidential race and other contests.

In light of the decision, it’s now time for Congress to take the necessary steps to limit the amount of influence that “outsiders” wield on our electoral process. We need to implement a series of common-sense steps to level the political playing field so that the biggest voices come from candidates and the citizens who have a paramount interest in the outcome of their elections — whether for the House, Senate or White House:

House Races

  • Citizens can only contribute to a candidate in the district of their domicile.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise), or unions with a nexus to a congressional candidate can make a monetary contribution to that candidate. The “nexus” must be a test of the relationship to the district as determined by Congress.
  • Congress shall determine maximum contribution amounts by individuals, unions and corporations.
  • National, state and local political parties shall have caps set on their contributions to House candidates — directly or indirectly — as determined by Congress.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise), and unions must disclose to shareholders/members and the FEC the amount spent on “electioneering” communications, and where such monies were spent prior to — or concurrently — with the communications being made. Such organizations must also disclose the content of communications.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise) and unions must advertise in their own names and disclose within the advertising their name and nexus to the district in which the advertising appears.

Senate Races

  • Citizens can only contribute to a Senate candidate in the state of their domicile.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise), or unions with a nexus to a state can make a monetary contribution to a Senate candidate. The “nexus” must be a test of the relationship to the state as determined by Congress.
  • Congress shall determine maximum contribution amounts by individuals, unions and corporations.
  • National, state and local parties shall have caps set on their contributions to U.S. senatorial candidates — directly or indirectly — as determined by Congress.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise), and unions must disclose to shareholders/members and the FEC the amount of monies spent on “electioneering” communications and where such monies were spent prior to — or concurrently — with the communications being made. Such organizations must also disclose the content of the communication.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise) and unions must advertise in their own names and must disclose within the advertising their name and nexus to the state in which the ad appears.

Presidential Races

  • Citizens can contribute to presidential primaries and general elections in amounts determined by Congress, however such donations can only be used by campaigns in the state of their domiciles.
  • A corporation, (not-for-profit or otherwise), or union can make a monetary contribution to a presidential candidate’s primary and/or general election. Such donations can only be used by campaigns in the state of their nexus. For instance, if General Motors has a plant in Michigan it can donate in an amount to be determined by Congress and can only be used in Michigan.
  • Congress shall determine maximum contribution amounts for individuals, unions, and corporations.
  • National, state and local parties shall have caps set on their contributions to general election campaigns and conventions — directly or indirectly — as determined by Congress.
  • Corporations, (not-for-profit or otherwise), and unions must disclose to shareholders/members and the FEC the amount of monies spent on “electioneering” communications and where such monies were spent prior to, or concurrently with the communications being made. They must also disclose the content of the communication.
  • Corporations (not-for-profit or otherwise) and unions must advertise in their own names and must disclose their identity within the advertising.

Personal Wealth: A candidate for the House, Senate or presidency can spend whatever personal wealth they wish without limit, however, once a candidate passes a certain threshold of contribution — decided by Congress — the U.S. government will match that contribution to the opponent.

Rationale: Today, citizens can only vote in the district of their domicile. A citizen does not have the right to vote in the district of their choosing. Corporations and unions should only be allowed to influence an election if they have a nexus to that district/state.

It makes no sense for “outsiders” to have undue or unfair influence in elections they have no nexus, or “interest” in. These new rules would make representatives more beholden to their constituents. The elimination of outside influence would reduce the vast amounts of money candidates and parties would need to raise and give a louder voice to those who have the greatest stake in the outcome of an election — the voters, corporations, unions and interest groups within that district or state.

Now is the time for fair and reasonable campaign finance reform. It is not in America’s interest to continue to allow elections to be conducted without regard for the rights of candidates and the people most affected by a particular election outcome.

Weigh in: Share you reactions to Professor Blakeman's proposals for campaign finance reform.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This piece originally appeared on Newsmax.

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